Justices split on damages, fees award in Otterbein case

From The Columbus Dispatch It was that close.

A bid by a former student journalist at Otterbein University in Westerville to win an award of damages and attorney fees in her successful public-records lawsuit was shot down 4-3 by the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Anna Schiffbauer won a 4-3 decision from the justices on May 21 that held the police departments of private colleges and universities are subject to public records laws and must release campus-crime reports and other records.

With the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and the Society of Professional Journalists covering part of her legal fees in the lawsuit, she and her lawyer, John Greiner of Cincinnati, petitioned the court for an award of legal fees and damages.

Justices William M. O’Neill, Judith L. French and Sharon L. Kennedy formed the minority in the ruling, writing they would have awarded damages, costs of $247 and legal fees of $15,050 to Schiffbauer.

O'Neill and Kennedy, interestingly, voted against Schiffbauer’s case on the merits.

In a dissent, O’Neill wrote, “It is disingenuous for this court to now find that the Otterbein University police department was reasonable in its belief that it was not a public office subject to the PRA (public records act).

“The whole purpose of awarding attorney fees and statutory damages in public-records cases is to encourage compliance with the law and to compensate those who have had to file a lawsuit to force compliance,” O’Neill wrote.

“I do not have to agree with the holding to assert that the individuals who challenged the Otterbein University police department’s interpretation of the law are entitled to be compensated."

In another ruling today, the court awarded damages, which are capped at $1,000, in a public records case. The justices ordered the city of South Euclid to turn over any records it had not yet produced for a woman who filed a records request and awarded her $600 in damages. The city took an unreasonable amount of time to turn over records, the court ruled in a 6-1 vote.