Late in December, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued an opinion providing important clarity to public bodies, including school boards, facing claims that they have violated Ohio’s Open Meeting Act (OMA). The case, Ames v. Rootstown Twp. Bd. of Trustees, was filed by an Ohio citizen against the township. After reviewing public records, Ames filed a claim against the township board of trustees alleging that it had violated the OMA 16 times on 16 separate occasions. All of the allegations involved executive sessions. For example, one of the allegations involved the board going into executive session to discuss “pending litigation” pursuant to RC 121.22(G)(3), but without its legal counsel present. Having legal counsel present is one of the requirements for utilizing executive session under this provision.
The OMA provides that, if it finds proof of a violation or threatened violation of the OMA, a county court of common pleas shall issue an injunction to compel the members of the public agency to comply with the law. If the court issues an injunction, it “shall order” the public body to pay a civil forfeiture of $500 to the person who sought the injunction. In his claim, Ames asked for an injunction to compel the board to comply with the requirements of the OMA. He also asked for a civil forfeiture and attorney’s fees as provided by law for each of the 16 violations.
The court of appeals concluded that the board of trustees had violated the OMA in 14 meetings. After the court remanded the case to the court of common pleas, the trial court granted summary judgment to Ames for eight violations of the OMA, enjoined the board from violating the OMA, and ordered one civil fine as well as $1000 in attorney fees. Ames appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Along with other associations of public officials, including the Ohio Township Association, County Commissioners Association of Ohio and Ohio Municipal League, OSBA’s Legal Assistance Fund filed an amicus brief in the case. The associations argued that awarding $500 civil forfeiture per violation in cases of this kind acts as an incentive for open meeting “bounty hunters” to bring stacked claims that will ultimately be paid for by taxpayers. It argued that, if the court issues one injunction, it should also award one forfeiture. The associations noted that there were other provisions of the OMA to incentivize public officials to obey its requirements, including the possibility of removal from office, which would not require that the taxpayers bear a significant financial burden.
In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the position set forth in the combined associations’ brief. It held that “when a public body commits multiple violations of the OMA through the same conduct, only one injunction is needed to order compliance with the OMA in the future. Multiple duplicative injunctions would serve no purpose. It therefore follows that when an injunction is issued in response to a public body’s committing multiple violations of the OMA through the same conduct, R.C. 121.22(I)(2)(a) requires the trial court to award a single civil forfeiture of $500.” The court found that this conclusion served the purposes of the Open Meetings Act without creating an incentive for delay and the potential for a windfall.
On Jan. 3, Ames filed a motion asking the Supreme Court of reconsider its decision. The division of legal services will continue to monitor this case and provide updates as they become available. In the meantime, please reach out to the Division of Legal Services with any questions.