In the case of State ex rel. Crilley v. Lowellville Bd. of Edn., 2023-Ohio-775, an appellate court refused to award attorney fees against a school board that failed to identify the remote learning plan purpose of a special meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) as (1) any action taken by the school board was a nullity without any significance at all in this case because only the superintendent could adopt a remote learning plan in the first place and (2) the school board reasonably adopted and relied on an unaltered OMA policy from the Ohio School Board Association (“OSBA”).
In this case, public record requestors argued that they must be awarded attorney fees as (1) the school board clearly failed to identify the special meeting purpose based on the ordinary application of statutory and case law as it existed at the time of the violation and (2) no well-informed school board would reasonably believe that its conduct served the liberal openness purpose of the OMA. In response, the school board argued that attorney fees should not be awarded because the school board satisfied the two-part test in R.C. 121.22(I)(2)(a) as both (1) a well-informed school board could reasonably believe that it did not violate the OMA as only the superintendent could adopt a remote learning plan in the first place and (2) the same school board could reasonably believe that adopting an unaltered model policy fashioned by an established organization — such as the OSBA — tasked with the responsibility of drafting model rules would comply with the OMA. The appellate court agreed with the school board.
In support of its decision in favor of the school board, the appellate court first explained that — in applying an abuse of discretion standard — the school board reasonably believed that it did not violate the OMA as the school board had no legal authority to adopt a remote learning plan in the first place because this unfettered discretion rested solely with the superintendent and, therefore, any action by the school board would be both vain and useless. The appellate court next explained that — in applying an abuse of discretion standard — the school board reasonably believed that adopting an unaltered model policy fashioned by the OSBA complied with the OMA. As a result, the appellate court refused to award attorney fees against the school board as both parts of the R.C. 121.22(I)(2)(a) two-part test were met in this case.
WARNING: The outcome of this case may have been must different had the school board been tasked with the legal authority to adopt a remote learning plan in the first place. Instead, the appellate court applied the legal maxim quod vanum et inutile est, lex non requirit (the law does not require what is in vain and useless). Had legal authority been vested in the school board, then the school board may not have met the first part of the two-part test in R.C. 121.22(I)(2)(a) and attorney fees may have been assessed against the school board regardless of whether the school board reasonably relied upon the OSBA policy. That being said, this case does support the argument that reasonably relying upon an OSBA policy may serve as a form of qualified immunity for school boards in civil matters.
To read this case, click here.
Authors: Matthew John Markling and the McGown & Markling Team.
Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always-changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.