That’s an Expensive Text! Cincinnati Settles Lawsuit Over Sunshine Law Violation

The Cincinnati Enquirer is reporting that the city of Cincinnati has agreed to settle a public records lawsuit arising out of a text chain. The text chain is among five Cincinnati City Council members where the public officials discussed public business. It is well-settled law that discussions by a majority of the members of a public body, which take place in emails, texts or tweets, constitute a public meeting [White v. King, 147 Ohio St.3d 74, 2016-Ohio-2770 (2016)]. Therefore, the council members’ text chain violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. Further complicating the matter, one council member deleted his texts from his phone, thereby creating a separate violation of Ohio’s Public Records Act.

The settlement calls for the city to pay $1,000 as a statutory penalty for the public meetings violation, $10,000 for the deleted text messages and (remarkably) $90,0000 in attorney fees related to the lawsuit.

Cincinnati’s settlement of this case should serve as a reminder to public officials that texts, tweets or emails can be a public meeting, and they must conduct themselves accordingly. Furthermore, the case should serve as a reminder that when such violations occur, the public can be on the hook for a hefty legal bill.

Ben Chojnacki is an attorney with Walter | Haverfield's public law group who counsels municipalities, public entities and private corporations on all aspects of public law.  He can be reached at bchojnacki@walterhav.com or at 216-619-7850.