Friday, August 30, 2013

Appeals court upholds award of attorney fees to reporter, citing city's repeated 'false denials'

The Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled today that the City of Owensboro must pay the legal fees of a newspaper reporter to whom it refused to give copies of complaint forms about the police department's public-information officer.

James Mayse of the Messenger-Inquirer sought records involving Marian Cosgrove, who resigned her job in November 2011 after coming under investigation by the department. He asked for any documents related to any complaint about her, and the city repeatedly said it had no records that would be responsive to his requests.

Mayse appealed to Attorney General Jack Conway, whose office asked for and got the investigative files from the city. Conway ruled that the city must release the initial complaint forms in the file because they are not exempt from the state Open Records Act. The city appealed to Daviess Circuit Court, where Judge Jay Wethington ruled for Mayse. He said the city's denials were "willfully defiant" of the intent of the law and done in "bad faith," so the city should pay Mayse's legal fees.

The city appealed, but gave Mayse the two Professional Standards Complaint Forms, so the appeals court dismissed that part of city's appeal. In granting Mayse attorney fees, the three-judge panel wrote, "The City's response, on three separate occasions, that no record responsive to Mayse's requests for complaints is problematic given the egis of the Open Records Act. In fact, there were two documents labeled "Professional Standards Complaint Forms" in Cosgrove's file from the inception of Mayse's requests. When the attorney general asked repeatedly about the existence of 'any other document,' the city also denied the existence of such documents to the OAG. The circuit court found the city's explanation that the information was incorrectly put on a complaint form and labeled 'internal' was not persuasive and defied the statutory intent of the Open Records Act. In essence, the City repeatedly made false denials of the existence of any complaints regarding Cosgrove." The decision is here.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ky. high court says police can't just dismiss records requests using prospective-action exemption

The Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled today that law enforcement records are subject to open-records requests even if there is a "prospective law enforcement action," and that to withhold records for that reason, a law-enforcement agency must prove that a premature release of the them would hurt its prospective action.

The state's highest court ruled in a case brought by The Kentucky Enquirer, which wants the investigative file about a murder to which the victim's widow pleaded guilty in 2009 but is now seeking a new trial, alleging she had ineffective counsel. The Gannett Co. newspaper, an edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer, has been seeking the file since the case concluded.

The ruling "is a big step forward for us," Kentucky Press Association counsel Jon Fleischaker told the newspaper organization, which supported the Enquirer's efforts. "The court handed down some guidelines for proof in an open-records case which will be very helpful to us, especially in cases like the pending action against the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Finally, there is very useful language regarding the imposition of attorney’s fees and the circumstances under which the award of attorney’s fees is appropriate.  Those guidelines will be useful for all of us." For Fleischaker's note and a copy of the decision, click here.

The court "found that although the municipality’s response to The Enquirer request for records was inadequate, it has not been shown to have willfully violated the law, and so does not provide a basis for sanctions," Jim Hannah writes for the newspaper. "The Enquirer had asked that the municipality pay its legal bills in the case. Fort Thomas was ordered to make a good faith effort to identify those records responsive to The Enquirer’s request and either provide them to the newspaper or explain with why, under the law, they are exempt. A Campbell Circuit Court judge would then be asked to review what the city claimed was exempt to ensure the law was being followed." (Read more)