Legal foundation: Public Records Act doesn't excuse 'sloppy or even honest and reasonable mistakes'

By Taryn Phaneuf | Mar 22, 2016

STUART – A public interest legal foundation argues Martin County should be made to pay the legal fees of two Florida companies that sued the county in 2013 over allegedly unfulfilled public records requests.

In a friend of the court brief, the Pacific Legal Foundation urges a Florida appellate court to award attorneys' fees to plaintiffs in a suit over public records to “strengthen the public records law,” Christina Martin, staff attorney at PLF's Atlantic Center in Florida, told the Florida Record.

It helps “by motivating government agencies to be more responsive and careful in responding to requests for records,” Martin said. “The availability of attorney fees makes it possible for many citizens to enforce the public records law in the first place.”

Three years ago, two development companies requested public records discussing the companies because they believed the county violated their rights. Some of the records were released, but the county allegedly didn’t collect and release emails sent through private email addresses. The companies waited a year for all the records to be released before filing a suit against the county, claiming that officials violated the state’s Public Records Act.

Soon after the suit was filed, the county released emails from one of the county commissioner’s private email accounts. Other requested documents allegedly had been destroyed. The county argued that some handwritten notes requested by the plaintiffs were personal, not public, so they weren't saved.

Both the defendant and the plaintiffs requested that the judge compel the other to pay attorney fees following the suit but the court denied both requests. The companies argued for the fees, claiming that the county’s “failure to respond in the matter required by the public records law forced the plaintiffs to file a lawsuit to get those records,” Martin said.

In considering the companies’ request, the judge concluded that any failure to provide public records was inadvertent and the county made a “reasonable effort to respond and provide public records.”

Martin said it’s critical to award attorneys' fees in this case because the state law governing public records requires the government to pay attorneys' fees when a court finds that public records were unlawfully withheld.

“The Public Records Act does not make exception for sloppy or even honest and reasonable mistakes,” she said. “Government should not be excused from its duties simply because it is inept.”

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