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State ex rel. Community Press v. City of Blue Ash

Court of Appeals of Ohio, First District, Hamilton

June 27, 2018

STATE EX REL. THE COMMUNITY PRESS, Relator-Appellee/Cross-Appellant,
THE CITY OF BLUE ASH, OHIO, Respondant-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Civil Appeal From: Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas TRIAL NO. A-1604055

          Gradon Head & Ritchey, LLP, and John C. Greiner, for Relator-Appellee/Cross-Appellant,

          Dinsmore & Shohl, LLP, Alex M. Triantafilou, Bryan E. Pacheco and Andrew B. Cassady, for Respondent-Appellant/Cross-Appellee.


          Mock, Presiding Judge.

         {¶1} In two assignments of error, respondent-appellant/cross-appellee city of Blue Ash appeals from the decision of the trial court finding that it had improperly refused to provide information requested by petitioner-appellee/cross-appellant The Community Press. The Community Press, in one assignment of error, cross-appealed the decision claiming that the trial court improperly determined the amount of attorney fees awarded. We affirm the trial court's judgment in part, reverse it in part, and remand the cause for further proceedings.

         Management Program Information Sought By Media

         {¶2} Judy Office was the owner of Inner Summit. Inner Summit provides help to individuals seeking to improve their management skills, professional coaching, and development. She was contacted by the head of the human resources department for Blue Ash and asked to conduct a professional-development exercise called the "360 Feedback Project." The project was designed by Office to allow senior managers with the city to receive anonymous feedback from their peers and employees in areas of managerial development considered important by the International City/County Management Association, an organization that supports professional city and county managers and employees of local governments. There were to be seven individuals who received assessments, and each of them was reviewed by six to eight assessors. Office gave the estimate of between 42-56 possible responders in total. The employees were told that the surveys were confidential and that no one from Blue Ash would see them.

         {¶3} Office sent the forms to be completed as an attachment to an email that she sent to herself with a blind carbon copy to the assessors of the individual assessment. Office did not retain any of the emails sent to the assessors, but kept the Word document that she used as the form letter that she pasted into the email body.

          Those forms were completed by the assessors and returned to Office. Office then compiled the responses into a report that was sent only to the individual being assessed. While most of the reports were verbatim copies of the assessors' responses, Office sometimes edited or summarized comments that gave details that would have led to the individual being able to identify an assessor.

         {¶4} No one other than the subject of the report was given a copy of the report. Office said that they were for "individual development." They were not placed in personnel files or retained in any way by Blue Ash or any of its departments. And no action was taken by Blue Ash due to information contained in the reports.

         {¶5} In May 2016, a reporter for respondent-appellee/cross-appellant The Community Press learned of the assessments and submitted a public record request for all documents relating to it. Blue Ash tendered a copy of the proposal for the project (which was the only document relating to the "contract" between Inner Summit and Blue Ash, because the details of the process were arranged orally afterward) but tendered no other documents.

         {¶6} The Community Press filed suit against Blue Ash seeking a writ of mandamus to compel production of the reports, all the documents that related to the administration of the surveys, and the composition of the reports. The trial court found that the documents were public records subject to disclosure. The trial court also found that Blue Ash improperly deleted at least one email relating to the 360 Feedback Project. While the trial court found that Blue Ash had improperly withheld the documents, it denied The Community Press's request for attorney fees on that claim, finding that Blue Ash's position was "not unreasonable given the case law as it exists." The trial court awarded attorney fees relating to the deletion of the email.

          Mandamus Was Improperly Granted

         {¶7} In its first assignment of error, Blue Ash claims that the trial court erred when it issued the writ of mandamus compelling the city to produce the ...

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