Medina County Courthouse

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Court Upholds Most of Medical Board's Redactions from Requested Public Records

Requests for Statutory Damages, Attorney Fees Denied

State ex rel. Mahajan v. State Medical Bd. of Ohio, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-5995.
In Mandamus. Writ granted in part and denied in part.
Brown, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.

(Dec. 15, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio today partially granted and partially denied a writ of mandamus directing the State Medical Board to provide unredacted copies of some of the public records requested by Dr. Mahendra K. Mahajan, a Dayton psychiatrist, relating to a board investigation of Dr. Mahajan.

In a 7-0 per curiam opinion, the Court noted that the medical board provided more than 8,000 pages and several CDs of documents in response to Dr. Mahajan’s records request, and found that all but a handful of the redactions the board had made in documents it provided to Dr. Mahajan were required by law or authorized by exceptions to disclosure in the state’s Public Records Act.

The mandamus action arose from a May 2007 deposition of Dr. Mahajan conducted by one of the medical board’s enforcement attorneys, David Katko. Following that deposition, Dr. Mahajan’s attorney sent a letter to the board’s director complaining that Katko’s conduct during the deposition had been “rude, unprofessional, threatening, and intimidating.”

Following a January 2009 hearing on the disciplinary charges filed against Dr. Mahajan, he requested copies of certain records, including the board’s personnel file for Katko. After the board had provided thousands of pages of documents in response to his initial request, Dr. Mahajan submitted a supplemental request specifically seeking any records received or created by board members or management-level personnel related to Katko’s May 2007 deposition of Dr. Mahajan, and any similar incidents involving Katko.

The board forwarded copies of additional records responsive to the new request. Portions of seven of the documents had been redacted (blacked out or otherwise rendered unreadable). With regard to each of these documents, the board provided a written explanation of its reasons for the redactions. Dr. Mahajan objected to some of the redactions and asked the board to reconsider and provide him with unredacted copies of all of the documents. The board declined to do so, reiterating its prior reasons. Dr. Mahajan then filed an original action in mandamus, asking the Supreme Court to issue a writ requiring the board to provide unredacted copies of the specified documents.

In today’s decision, the Court found that, with very limited exceptions, the board’s redactions from the seven documents sought by Mahajan were proper under various exceptions to the Public Records Act, including exclusions for law enforcement investigatory records, board investigatory records, confidential employee medical records, and confidential board work product including assessments of evidence and discussions of investigative strategy.

The Court identified as error the medical board’s redaction of a an explanatory email sent by Katko to his supervisor on May 17, 2007 discussing Katko’s actions during the May 2007 deposition of Dr. Mahajan. The Court held that the email was not exempt from disclosure as an investigative record because it addressed Katko’s conduct rather than any substantive content of the Mahajan investigation. The Court also found that the board erred by redacting Mahajan’s own name from several documents, on the basis that Mahajan had waived the confidentiality of that information when he initiated the public records request.

The Court concluded: “‘The Public Records Act serves a laudable purpose by ensuring that governmental functions are not conducted behind a shroud of secrecy. However, even in a society where an open government is considered essential to maintaining a properly functioning democracy, not every iota of information is subject to public scrutiny. Certain safeguards are necessary.’ ... The General Assembly has provided these safeguards by balancing competing concerns and providing for certain exemptions from the release of public records pursuant to R.C. 149.43. ... The state medical board has met its burden for establishing the applicability of several of these exemptions. The board acted diligently and appropriately in the vast majority of its redactions to the requested records.”

“Other redactions were not covered by an exemption. Therefore, we grant a writ of mandamus to compel respondent to provide access to an unredacted copy of the May 17, 2007 e-mail, the portions of the May 22, 2007 notes that refer to Mahajan’s name and Katko’s prior deposition of him, and the parts of the May 31, 2007 memorandum and June 2007 e-mails that note Mahajan’s name. In all other respects, we deny the writ. We also deny relator’s request for statutory damages, attorney fees, and oral argument.”

Nicholas E. Subashi, 937.427.8800, for Dr. Mahendra K. Mahajan.

Katherine J. Bockbrader, 614.466.8600, for the State Medical Board of Ohio

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