TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott has signed a bill passed by the Florida Senate aimed at rooting out “gotcha” public records requests that have long been a part of the state's legal landscape.
Introduced by Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota), Senate Bill 80 is designed to penalize what he calls serial records abusers who work to snare public officials into scenarios in which the violation of public records laws can be argued, to gain a monetary settlement in any subsequent legal action.
The plan would also grant judges more discretion in determining whether any attorney’s fees should stem from the ongoing litigation.
The legislation also stipulates that judges award attorney fees if they uncover that an agency violated public records law and a “requestor” gave five days’ notice before filing suit.
The judge would also have the discretion of ruling on the burning question of if a requestor was guided by an “improper purpose” or "frivolous” reason in making the filing.
For years, local governments in Florida have insisted they have been dogged by requests that later turn into baseless legal actions. Current law mandates that state and local agencies cover the cost of attorney fees in public records cases.
"Senate Bill 80 is an important piece of legislation,” William W. Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute told the Florida Record. “For too long, public records requests were being made for the purposes of obtaining attorneys' fees. Now, this new law clarifies there cannot be an improper purpose behind the public records request.”
In Florida, the law on public records is the only form of legal enforcement regarding such matters short of prosecution.
Steube originally proposed removing the requirement that the legal fees be paid by agencies by altering the stipulation that judges “shall” award attorney’s fees to they “may” bestow them.
“Gov. Scott was correct to sign this bill,” Large said. “Hopefully, it will put an end to frivolous public records requests and the large attorneys' fee awards associated with them."