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Maryland’s Public Information Act Exempt from Administrative Exhaustion Requirements

Maryland's Public Information Act Exempt from Administrative Exhaustion Requirements

The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that a prisoner is not required to exhaust administrative remedies to bring an action under the Public Information Act.

Before the Court was a case filed by Richard C. Massey, Jr., a prisoner at Maryland?s Western Correctional Institution (WCI). Massey sought from WCI's warden public records on contracts pertaining to health services, canteen services and photocopying services. After two different requests seeking those documents were not answered, Massey filed a complaint in circuit court to compel disclosure. That court granted prison officials' motion to dismiss, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

Prison officials argued that Maryland?s Prison Litigation Act's (PLA) "exhaustion requirement appl[ies] to virtually every kind of civil matter that could be brought by a DOC inmate in State Court." The Court said it had to review three separate statutes to make a ruling.

The first statute, ch. 210, created the Inmate Grievance Office for when a prisoner "has a grievance against an official or employee of the Division of Correction or the Patuxant Institution." Next, the Court looked to the Maryland Public Information Act, ch. 698 . That Act allowed pursuit of an administrative remedy, but such "remedy need not be exhausted prior to filing suit in the circuit court pursuant to this article." Moreover, a court was to expedite any action under that Act, and the "presumption of the statute is in favor of disclosure." Finally, there was no limitation on persons, including prisoners, to inspect public records.

Finally the Court tuned to the PLA, ch. 495. The first words of that Act impose certain requirements upon "a prisoner who files a civil action relating to the conditions of confinement." Massey argued the PLA did not apply to an action under the Public Information Act because it was not a "civil action" under the PLA.

Prison officials did not dispute that the records sought were public in nature, and even admitted the records should have been given to Massey. The Court of Appeals held that a "request to inspect a public record does not relate to or involve a prisoner's 'conditions of confinement.'" As such, the PLA and any requirement to exhaust administrative remedies did not apply to a prisoner's request to inspect public documents.

The lower courts' judgments were reversed. See: Massey v. Galley, 392 Md. 634, 898 A.2d 951 (Md. 2006).

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Related legal case

Massey v. Galley