The Ohio Supreme Court has held that information on itemized attorney-billing statements that was not protected by the attorney-client privilege should be disclosed under Ohio’s Public Records Law.
The case is State ex rel. Anderson v. Vermilion, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-5320.
The former mayor of Vermilion believed that the annual legal fees expended by the new administration far exceeded the fees incurred during her administration. She made several records requests to permit public scrutiny of the city’s expenditure of funds for legal services.
The city acknowledged its receipt of the request but denied it on the basis that the requested legal bills are exempted from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege.
The Ohio Public Records Law, R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v), excludes “[r]ecords the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law” from the definition of “public record.” This includes records covered by the attorney-client privilege. The attorney-client privilege covers confidential communications between attorneys and their clients pertaining to the attorneys’ legal advice.
In other cases, the Supreme Court has held that the narrative portions of itemized attorney-billing statements containing descriptions of legal services performed by counsel for a client are protected by the attorney-client privilege. This is generally because the itemized narrative can provide information on legal issues and concerns facing a client.
The Supreme Court held that under “the Public Records Act, insofar as these itemized attorney billing statements contain nonexempt information, e.g., the general title of the matter being handled, the dates the services were performed, and the hours, rate, and money charged for the services, they should have been disclosed . . .” The court instructed that the privileged information on the bills should be redacted and any remaining information released.
The city’s best argument was that the privileged information in the statements was “inextricably intertwined” with the non-privileged information, thereby making the entire bills privileged and exempt from the public records law. The court rejected this argument, noting that other government entities have complied with the Public Records law by providing non-privileged information – such as time, rates, and billing amounts – from legal bills.