The OSBA Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) recently assisted the Strongsville City School District Board of Education by submitting a amicus curiae brief supporting the district's position in a public records case.

On March 4, the Strongsville Education Association (SEA) began a labor strike of the district's facilities. The school board hired temporary replacement teachers and continued operating the schools. The strike continued until April 28, when the parties approved a successor collective bargaining agreement.

On March 5, two attorneys served various public records requests upon the board, including a request for the names of all persons employed as teachers or substitute teachers in the district. The district denied the request on the basis that such records were exempt from disclosure under state and federal public policy, given the immediate threat of harm to the employees' persons and property that would result from disclosing their identities.

During the strike, the temporary replacement teachers were repeatedly harassed and threatened. The board believed that if their names were released, the teachers would be harassed, threatened and bullied; made vulnerable to having their personal and real property vandalized; and at risk of being assaulted or otherwise physically harmed by SEA members.

The president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, David Quolke, brought an action to compel the board to produce the records under Ohio's Public Records Act. The district filed a brief in opposition to his request and filed an answer to the amended complaint. As a part of the answer, the district brought several affirmative defenses:

--Quolke failed to caption his complaint in the name of the state of Ohio;

--the complaint incorrectly identified the district as the Strongsville Board of Education instead of the Strongsville City School District Board of Education;

--he was not a "person aggrieved" since the attorneys, not Quolke, made the public records request.

Quolke then filed a motion to file a second amended complaint, which the court granted. In his amended complaint, Quolke cured the first two mistakes mentioned in district's answer. However, the third issue continued to be outstanding.

OSBA's amicus brief, written by the law firm Isaac, Wiles, Burkholder & Teetor LLC, argued that Quolke was not entitled to relief because his public records request was overly broad, and that the names of the temporary replacement teachers were not public records given the threats of harm and harassment.

Unfortunately, the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals granted the majority of Quolke's requests for a writ of mandamus against the Strongsville board. The court held that any former concern for safety no longer existed since the strike was over, and ordered Strongsville to turn over the records. In addition, the court held that Quolke had standing to make a request, even though the request came from his attorneys. The court wanted to avoid a holding that would discourage an individual from using an attorney to request records by requiring disclosure of the client at the requesting stage. The court acknowledged that Quolke failed to request specific documents, but reasoned that denying the request on that basis elevated form over substance.

The court acknowledged that its decision on the safety argument was a narrow one, and that there may be a reason to prohibit releasing replacement teachers' names during a strike if they were subject to threats and violence.

If you have any questions about this case, please feel free to contact the OSBA legal services division at (614) 540-4000.

Posted by Sara Clark on 9/6/2013