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When Strike Ends, Identities of Replacement Teachers Are Public Record

Image of a pile of signs that say 'On Strike' (John Kershner/Thinkstock)

The Supreme Court decided a case today about releasing the names of teachers who filled in during a strike in Strongsville.

Image of a pile of signs that say 'On Strike' (John Kershner/Thinkstock)

The Supreme Court decided a case today about releasing the names of teachers who filled in during a strike in Strongsville.

Five months after a contentious school strike ended, little evidence showed that the replacement teachers faced any serious threats of harm and their names could be released to the teacher’s union requesting their identities, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 5-2 ruling affirms the decision of the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which ordered the Strongsville City School District Board of Education to release the names of the teachers to David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Teacher’s Union. The per curiam decision also upheld the order to pay Quolke $7,973 for court costs and attorney fees.

Strike Starts
Strongsville’s 385 teachers and other licensed personnel are represented by the Strongsville Education Association, which filed a notice to strike beginning March 4, 2013. On March 3, the school board began interviewing applicants for replacement teachers at Strongsville City Hall. About 75 to 100 people were chanting, jeering, and cursing the applicants as they exited the building, and school administrators led the applicants out the back door to their cars with a police escort.

When the strike started the next day, replacement teachers found harassing and intimidating messages left in the classrooms by striking teachers. Signs were posted in some neighborhoods with the addresses of replacement teachers, and Strongsville’s teachers union posted a “Wall of Shame” on its website featuring photos of some of the replacement teachers. Strongsville police arrested a striking teacher for allegedly cutting off a van carrying replacement teachers to work leading the replacements to tell authorities they were frightened, and one replacement teacher reported to police that while driving home a car pulled up to her, a passenger yelled “scab,” and threw something that broke her windshield glass.

On March 5 and again on March 20 through legal counsel, Quolke made a public records request for the names, home addresses, home telephone numbers, cell-phone numbers, employee identification numbers, and payroll information of the replacement teachers.

The board indicated it would respond, but it had not before April 3 when Quolke filed for a writ of mandamus in the Eighth District to obtain the records. On April 4, the board provided some records, but denied the names and identification of the replacement teachers deeming them not to be public records. The board referenced the exemption in the Ohio public records law, R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v), that withholds records “the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law.” It argued Ohio case law provides the right to privacy giving it the right to deny the records request.

Board Appeals
The strike ended on April 28, and the Eighth District did not render an opinion until Oct. 7. The appellate court determined the risk of serious harm to the replacement teachers had receded at the time of their decision and the unredacted records revealing the identities of the replacement teachers had to be turned over to Quolke.

The board appealed to the Supreme Court arguing the threats could carry on beyond the end of the strike, making the identities not public records. The board further claimed Quolke had no standing to request the records because the board was not informed he was making the request through his attorneys, and that he was not entitled to attorney fees because the union was paying for the litigation.

Timing Is a Factor
The high court cited its State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Craig (2012) decision to validate that personal identification can be withheld if there is a substantial risk of seriously bodily harm if disclosed. “Case law does establish a right to privacy in circumstances in which a person might be at substantial risk of serious bodily harm if personal information is disclosed,” the decision noted.

The court also noted State ex rel Beacon Journal Publishing Co. v. Akron (1994), where nonphysical harm could also be a valid reason not to disclose an identity. In that case the city of Akron refused to release Social Security numbers of employees because of the potential risk of identity theft.

While the board may have had a reason not to release the records when the strike was going on, the justices noted that, in general, courts make the decisions on writs of mandamus at the time the court is considering the matter, not an earlier time.

“The board points out that one of the threats against the replacement teachers was that their decision to work during the strike would ‘follow them throughout their careers.’ However, the court of appeals granted the writ specifically because the board had presented little or no evidence that once the strike was over, there was any remaining threat to the replacement teachers,” the court wrote.

The court also determined Quolke had standing, as required by state law, and was a “person allegedly aggrieved” when the board denied its decision. Because the board did not know until after it denied the records that the firm was making the request for Quolke does not mean he is not the real requester and the person aggrieved. The court explained the definition of “person” in R.C. 149.43 is broad and a designee can make the request.

Attorney Fees Appropriate
The board also argued it did not owe attorney fees because Quolke was not responsible for paying the fee. In prior cases, the court has disallowed fee awards if the person did not actually owe any fees. In this case Quolke demonstrated he was represented by an independent law firm, and the court determined regardless of whether he acting on his own behalf or as a designee of the union, one of the two would have to pay the law firm for its representation, and thus the Eighth District was permitted to award fees.

In the court’s majority were Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

Dissenting Opinion
Justice O’Donnell wrote that the passage of a few months without incident does not permit the inference that the threat against the replacement teachers had diminished. In his view, a decision based on a lack of new incidents does not adequately consider the animosity that picketers and others displayed toward the replacement teachers during the strike and the fact that once the strike ended, it became harder to locate the replacement teachers without their names, making the occurrence of new incidents less likely.  

Justice O’Donnell concluded that during the strike the evidence demonstrated that the replacement teachers faced a substantial risk of serious bodily harm and that the disclosure of their names now violates their constitutional privacy rights and is not narrowly tailored to further a compelling state interest. This evidence included allegations that someone threw an object at the vehicle of a replacement teacher while she drove home from school, damaging her windshield, and that a striking teacher cut off a van transporting replacement teachers and nearly caused a collision. 

In Justice O’Donnell’s view, the names are exempt from disclosure.

2013-1809. State ex rel. Quolke v. Strongsville City School Dist. Bd. of Edn., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-1083.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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