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Defense for Official Website Content
Elected officials who publish private information contained in Public Records on their websites cannot rely on official immunity as a defense according to a recent Ohio appeals court ruling. In September, the Cincinnati-based Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals reversed an earlier ruling on a lawsuit Cynthia Lambert filed against Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann.
“This is an enormously important development in the law which needs to be clarified. It’s important because in today’s world, a great deal of mischief can be done if private information … gets into the hands of the wrong people,” said Marc Mezibov, the attorney for Cynthia Lambert, after the September 26 ruling.
Lambert had her identity stolen in 2004 and her credit and finances ruined. She believes that identity theft only happened because the Clerk of Courts posted a 2003 a speeding ticket she received on its web site – www.courtclerk.org. That ticket contained her Social Security number, date of birth, address and other personal information.
Lambert alleged that the clerk’s office began publishing traffic tickets, without redacting social-security numbers, in February 1999 and continued to do so until December 22, 2004, despite learning in 2002 that identity theft had been committed by using information obtained on the clerk’s website, and despite being warned by other county officials in electronic correspondence to the clerk’s legal counsel that the clerk’s website provided “fertile ground for identity theft.”
Lambert’s suit noted the woman who was convicted of stealing Lambert’s identity, Traci Southerland, admitted to being part of a ring of people who accessed the clerk’s web site to get information to steal identities. That ring stole at least 100 identities, ringing up about $500,000 in fraudulent transactions. Lambert’s stolen identity was used to make at least $20,000 in fraudulent purchases.
In her complaint, Lambert alleged that the clerk had acted “recklessly, willfully, and purposefully” in publishing Lambert’s personal and private information and many others’ personal and private information on his public website.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman threw out the lawsuit last year, saying government officials like Hartmann are immune from such suits.
The appeals court ruling, though, noted government officials can be sued if their actions were reckless or negligent as Lambert alleged.The appeals court held that “the clerk has a duty to prevent personal, private information from being misused”, and noted that even if Hartmann had immunity from being sued, he shouldn’t have allowed Social Security numbers and other data to be posted unfettered online.
For more information on this please see Don’t Let Identity Theft Rob Your Election
For the complete text of the appellate ruling in PDF format please see http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/docs/pdf/1/2008/2008-ohio-4905.pdf