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Geauga County Probate/Juvenile Court v. Geauga County Auditor's Office

Court of Claims of Ohio

May 23, 2019

GEAUGA COUNTY PROBATE/JUVENILE COURT Requester
v.
GEAUGA COUNTY AUDITOR'S OFFICE Respondent

          Sent to S.C. Reporter 6/28/19

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JEFFERY W. CLARK, SPECIAL MASTER

         {¶1} On April 3, 2019, Kimberly Laurie, Court Administrator for requester Geauga County Probate/Juvenile Court (Probate/Juvenile Court) made verbal and written public records requests to respondent Geauga County Auditor's Office (Auditor's Office). Laurie summarized the verbal request and response in a letter to Auditor Chuck Walder dated April 3, 2019:

On Monday, April 1, 2019, I emailed Kate Jacob requesting the status of check number 1045158 for Robert Williams, and check number 1045159 for Round 1 Ministry, which, according to New World, were printed on Friday, March 29, 2019 (attached). * * *
I then informed Ms. McMahan to consider this a public records request to inspect the documents, pursuant to R.C. 149.43(B)(1) * * *
You * * * refused to allow us to inspect the requested documents, and required that we make the records request in writing.
If you do not comply with public records law by providing the Court an opportunity to inspect these records as requested at 10:30 this morning by 2:30pm this afternoon, I will have no choice but to file a formal public records complaint with the Court of Claims pursuant to R.C. 2743.75.

(Complaint at 6-7.) Laurie states that when she returned at 2:30 p.m. she was advised that the documents weren't ready. (Id. at 3.) On April 4, 2019, the Probate/Juvenile Court filed this action under R.C. 2743.75 alleging denial of access to public records in violation of R.C. 149.43(B). The Auditor's Office filed a motion to dismiss (Response) on April 25, 2019.

         Motion to Dismiss

         {¶2} In order to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, it must appear beyond doubt that the claimant can prove no set of facts warranting relief after all factual allegations of the complaint are presumed true and all reasonable inferences are made in claimant's favor. State ex rel. Findlay Publ. Co. v. Schroeder, 76 Ohio St.3d 580, 581, 669 N.E.2d 835 (1996).

         Capacity to Sue

         {¶3} Among other grounds, the Auditor's Office moves to dismiss because requester lacks the capacity to file this action. (Response at 8.) The Court cites State ex rel. Cleveland Municipal Court v. Cleveland City Council, 34 Ohio St.2d 120, 296 N.E.2d 544 (1973) for the Ohio rule that, "Absent express statutory authority, a court can neither sue nor be sued in its own right." Id. at 121.

         {¶4} There is no express statutory authority for a court to sue under the Public Records Act.[1] A public records action may only be brought by "a person" allegedly aggrieved by the failure of an office to comply with R.C. 149.43(B). R.C. 149.43(C)(1), (D)(1); R.C. 2743.75(D)(1). There is no definition of "person" in the statutes governing this action. However, "[a]s used in any statute, unless another definition is provided in that statute or a related statute: * * * (C) Person' includes an individual, corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, and association." R.C. 1.59. Notably, despite the named relator's lack of capacity to sue in Cleveland Municipal Court, the Supreme Court chose not to dismiss the action, finding that "examination of the complaint reveals that this action is proper in that it is brought by the existing judges of the Municipal Court who are public officers clothed with judicial authority." The Court did not elaborate on this finding. The court's search failed to locate any public records action brought solely by a court or other office that is not sui juris. In State ex rel. Office of Montgomery Cty. Pub. Defender v. Siroki, 108 Ohio St.3d 207, 2006-Ohio-662, 842 N.E.2d 508, both the office and an employee were named relators. Siroki did not challenge the capacity of the Public Defender's Office to sue, and the action would have survived in any event for the individual separately named as a relator.

         {¶5} The complaint in this case explains that the subject request was made because "[t]he [Probate/Juvenile] Court has a responsibility to ensure that its vendors receive appropriate compensation due them, so" the administrator contacted the Auditor's Office and, receiving no response, personally visited the Auditor's Office along with the court's fiscal compliance officer and a staff attorney. (Complaint at 2.) The complaint speaks of "our" attempts to access the records to resolve "a point of contention between the County Auditor and the Court." (Id. at 3.) In a letter to the Auditor, the administrator represented that "the Court is seeking confirmation from your office" regarding the checks, and that "the Court has a right to be kept informed of the status of such payments by your office. For this reason, a public records request should not be necessary." (Id. at 6.) The letter concluded with the demand: "If you do not comply with public records law by providing the Court an opportunity to inspect these records as requested * * *, I will have no ...


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