The Strongsville District Board of Education operates a preschool and ten elementary and secondary public schools, serving over 6,200 students. The Board employs about 385 teachers and other personnel who are represented by the Strongsville Education Association (“SEA”) for collective bargaining of the terms and conditions of employment.
On February 21, 2013, SEA gave the Board ten days’ notice – in accordance with Ohio law – that it would strike on Monday, March 4 if a labor agreement wasn’t reached. On March 4, the SEA commenced its labor strike.
The day before the strike, the Board began hiring temporary replacement teachers to take the place of the striking teachers. The Board used Strongsville’s council chambers to conduct background checks, collect paperwork, and process applications for replacement teachers.
On March 3, about 100 people outside the city-council building chanted, jeered, and cursed at the applicants as they entered and exited the building to apply for jobs. The crowd took pictures of applicants and screamed obscenities at one applicant who entered the building with her two small children.
Many applicants were visibly shaking when they entered the building, and others were afraid to leave. Eventually, school administers began leading applicants to their cars through a rear entrance with a police escort. Some applicants never returned.
During the strike – which lasted until April 28 – acts of harassment and intimidation aimed at the replacement teachers continued. Replacement teachers discovered notes in classrooms containing offensive messages. Signs were distributed in neighborhoods where some replacement teachers lived identifying them by name and disclosing their addresses.
SEA posted a “wall of shame” on its website with pictures of some replacement teachers; the posting was accompanied by derogatory and offensive comments. Picketers continued to harass and intimidate replacements during the strike.
A striking teacher was arrested by the Strongsville Police Department for reckless driving when he allegedly cut off a van transporting replacement teachers to work. Another replacement teacher reported to the police that she was driving home when a car pulled up next to her and the passenger yelled “scab” and threw something at her windshield, breaking the glass.
During the strike, on two separate occasions, attorneys for David Quolke – the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union – made public-records requests of the Strongsville Board of Education. They requested names, addresses, home- and cell-phone numbers, and employee-identification numbers for all the replacement teachers.
On April 3, after the Board indicated that it would respond but did not do so, Quolke filed a lawsuit in the court of appeals for the records. On April 4 – before it had been served with the lawsuit – the Board provided copies of some records, but claimed that many of the requested records were not subject to disclosure. The Board asserted that the names of the replacement teachers weren’t considered public records because of the threat of harm to those teachers.
Quolke amended his complaint, eventually narrowing the question to whether the names of all teachers employed by the Board during the strike were “public records.”
The court of appeals determined that the Board was required to disclose the names of the replacement teachers because there was insufficient evidence regarding the threat of harm after the strike had ended – which it had by then. The court issued the writ ordering the release of the records “taking into consideration the facts and circumstances” as they existed at the time the opinion was rendered. The court of appeals stated that it wasn’t resolving “the issue whether the constitutional right of privacy and personal safety” could prohibit the release of the names during a strike.
The Board then filed an appeal with us – the Ohio Supreme Court – asking us to reverse the court of appeals and hold that the names of the replacement teachers are not a public record. The Board argued that it properly withheld the names of the replacement teachers in accordance with a state law that allows the withholding of records to protect the replacement teachers’ privacy and well-being.
Previous cases decided by Ohio courts in similar situations have established a right to privacy in circumstances in which a person might be at substantial risk of serious bodily harm if personal information is disclosed. Some cases also indicate that even when imminent bodily harm is not threatened or is not a potential risk, disclosure is nevertheless precluded because of the potential for nonphysical harm. For instance, in 1994 we concluded that social security numbers of government employees are exempt because of the harm that could be inflicted by the disclosure of the number.
During the strike, the replacement teachers were primarily subjected to nonphysical threats, such as jeering and obscenities, and notes left in classrooms. But there were also a few reports of incidents that threatened the physical safety of replacement teachers, such as the reckless-driving incident, and the broken windshield. There may have been a genuine threat to the replacement teachers’ physical well-being from supporters of the strike.
Thus, during the strike, the Board reasonably concluded that disclosure of the names and personal information about the replacement teachers would expose them to a substantial risk of serious harm. But in general, a court is to consider the facts and circumstances existing at the time that it makes its determination, not at some earlier time.
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. That decision was issued “taking into consideration the facts and circumstances as they existed…several months after the strike.”
We concluded that the court of appeals did not abuse its discretion by holding that the danger of retaliation or physical harm to the replacement teachers had receded at the time that it made its decision and that the Board is now obligated to produce the relevant documents with the teachers’ names unredacted.
Therefore, by a five-to-two vote – we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals on that issue.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The case referred to is: State ex rel. Quolke v. Strongsville City School Dist. Bd. Of Edn., 142 Ohio St.3d 509, 2015-Ohio-
Paul E. Pfeifer is a judge in the Court of Appeals.