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Court News Ohio

Township Must Release Legal Bill in Public Records Case

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled today that a Stark County man is entitled to an invoice detailing legal fees incurred in defending Plain Township, even though the invoice was not in the township’s possession. The Court also awarded $1,000 in damages because the township failed to explain why it would not provide the records until after the man sued to access the invoices.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Court stated that under the “quasi-agency” test, a township has the duty to provide access to legal invoices even when a statewide insurance pool handles a matter for the township, hires and pays the lawyers involved, and retains copies of all the financial records.

The Court wrote that the “prosecution and defense of such lawsuits involves a public duty of the township and its trustees,” and the township’s board of trustees “must protect the public interest by knowing what and how its lawyers are being paid, to ensure the quality of the representation.” The legal invoices sent to and paid by the third-party claims administrator are public records of the township itself, the Court concluded.

Township Resident Seeks Expense Records
In December 2018, Steven Armatas emailed a request to the Plain Township administrator requesting copies of any invoices for legal services performed for the township by the Baker, Dublikar, Beck, Wiley & Mathews law firm for three matters related to zoning litigation regarding Armatas. The administrator replied the next day, acknowledging receipt of the request and stating she would gather the requested material.

After several months, Armatas neither received access to the records nor a written denial of his request. In September 2019, he sought a writ of mandamus from the Fifth District Court of Appeals seeking to compel the township to release the records. The township responded that the administrator inadvertently neglected to inform Armatas there “was no record kept by the township responsive to the request.”

The township officials explained that it is a member of the Ohio Township Association Risk Management Authority (OTARMA). The Ohio Township Association’s website indicates that OTARMA is a self-insurance pool, originally formed in 1987 for the primary purpose of providing townships throughout Ohio with an alternative to traditional property and casualty insurance. OTARMA contracts with Public Entity Risk Services of Ohio (PERSO) to administrate insurance claims made against townships that are members of OTARMA.

Township Denies Possession of Risk Pool Records
Plain Township officials stated that PERSO hired attorneys to perform services for the township related to Armatas’ matters, and invoices for legal services were sent to PERSO rather than the township. The administrator explained that the only time the township would receive copies of invoices related to law firms hired by PERSO is when the work falls into a deductible the township must pay for claims and legal defense.

The township indicated one invoice in the possession of PERSO would be responsive to Armatas’ request, but argued the invoice was not a public record because the township never possessed it and it did not document the township’s own operations.

The Fifth District agreed with the township and denied the writ. Representing himself, Armatas appealed to the Supreme Court, and asked for the writ, along with statutory damages, court costs, and attorney fees. The Court is obligated to hear this type of appeal.

Court Analyzes Record Request
Under R.C. 149.43, a public record is defined as a record “kept by any public office,” including a township, the opinion noted. The definition is further refined under R.C. 149.011(G) to include records that are “created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office” that document the functions and operations of the office. The Court determined in prior decisions that invoices for legal services are public records except for the portions that contained privileged information.

Typically, public-records requests involve requests for records kept by the office that document its official activities, the Court explained, but in some cases records related to the public office are in the possession of private entities tasked with assisting the office in carrying out public duties. Even in cases where the office did not “create” or “receive” a public record, the record may be “under the jurisdiction” of the public office.

The Court has established a “quasi-agency” test for determining whether records connected to public offices in the hands of private entities are public records.

Court Examines Township’s Relationship with Private Entity
The Court’s quasi-agency test finds a record is public if a private entity prepares the records to carry out a public office’s responsibilities, the public office is able to monitor the private entity’s performance, and the public office has access to the records.

The township argued it did not delegate its public duties to a private entity. The township trustees argued they are not attorneys, and by joining the OTARMA risk pool, the township had no duty to defend its actions in the lawsuits. The township argued it was PERSO’s decision to hire lawyers and that does not involve the delegation of duties from the township.

The Court noted the prosecution and defense of such lawsuits involves a public duty of the township.

“In connection with such lawsuits, the township and its trustees must take whatever action is necessary and appropriate to protect the public interest – including hiring and supervising lawyers,” the opinion stated.

Although the township delegated the duties by joining OTARMA, it is part of a formal client-attorney relationship even if the insurance company exercises substantial control over the litigation, the opinion stated. Armatas proved the legal invoice was related to a public duty and is a public record, the opinion stated.

The Court concluded that Armatas was entitled to the record and, because the township did not provide a written response to his record request until after the filing of the mandamus action even after the administrator stated she would gather the requested records, the Court imposed the maximum $1,000 in damages. Armatas was also entitled to court costs, which the Fifth District taxed to Armatas when it ruled for the township. Because Armatas represented himself in the case, the Court found he was not entitled to attorney fees.

2020-0479. State ex rel. Armatas v. Plain Twp. Bd. of Trustees, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-1176.

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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