Court wrongly took judicial notice of facts contained on government website

The Sixth Circuit has overturned the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio’s dismissal of a class action lawsuit against the City of Columbus, holding that the magistrate judge improperly considered evidence contained on the city’s website. The magistrate had taken judicial notice of the information contained on the website, but the Court of Appeals held that the website was not a public record containing information the accuracy of which could not reasonably be questioned.

Plaintiffs filed suit against the City of Columbus, Ohio alleging that a mediation program established by the city to handle disputes over bad checks violated the Federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Ohio Consumer Sales Protection Act. The City moved to dismiss, arguing that the program was neither a “debt collector” under the Federal act nor a “supplier” under the Ohio law, and thus could not be liable under either of the statutes. The magistrate judge granted the motion to dismiss. In reaching its decision, the magistrate judge took judicial notice of information contained on the City’s website, namely, a statement that the program’s purpose was to resolve disputes, not collect debts.

The Court of Appeals overturned the magistrate judge’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings. At issue was whether the judge properly took judicial notice of the information contained on the City’s website. Noting that a district court generally may take judicial notice of the existence of public records, the Court of Appeals held that “a court may only take judicial notice of a public record whose existence or contents prove facts whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”

The City had argued that the website was a public record simply because it was the record of a public entity. The Court swiftly determined, however, that the plaintiffs had reasonably questioned the accuracy of the information, and that they should have been given the opportunity to introduce contradictory evidence. The magistrate judge’s reliance on the website constituted reversible error.

The court gave a nod to public policy considerations that should prohibit a court from blindly accepting the contents of government websites: “If all online statements by a government agency could be relied upon as true by a court considering a motion to dismiss, government agencies could defuse any complaint alleging improper governmental motives merely by stating an arguably proper motive on their website. Such a result could eviscerate all sorts of fraud, civil rights, and other laws requiring investigations into governmental motives.”

Passa v. City of Columbus, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 2832 (6th Cir. February 16, 2005).