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PLN Prevails in Connecticut FOI Case; City Appeals

On September 22, 2008, PLN requested public documents from the City of Hartford, Connecticut related to a lawsuit involving a prisoner who committed suicide; the suit had resulted in a $403,164 judgment against the City. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.24].

Hartford Assistant Corporation Counsel Jonathan Beamon agreed to provide the documents pursuant to the state’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, at a cost of $27.50. PLN requested a fee waiver, stating it was a non-profit media organization and the records would be used to benefit the public through PLN’s news reporting. The fee waiver was denied, as was PLN’s request that the documents be provided in electronic format (such as via email or fax), which would have cost the City nothing.

Although PLN requested information regarding the FOI appeals process, after a two-week delay Beamon responded by stating, “My understanding is the City of Hartford does not have an internal or administrative appeal process.” He neglected to mention, however, that under Connecticut law denials of FOI requests can be appealed to the state FOI Commission. PLN submitted a renewed records request which also was denied, then filed a formal appeal with the Commission on January 2, 2009.

A hearing was held before Commissioner Sherman D. London on April 17, 2009. PLN editor Paul Wright represented PLN. The hearing resulted in a proposed final decision to affirm the City’s denial of a fee waiver and refusal to produce the requested records in electronic format. Represented by attorney Brett Dignam at Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Le-gal Services Organization, and Robyn Gallagher, a second-year law student at Western New England College School of Law, PLN presented its case before the full five-member FOI Commission on September 23, 2009.

In a unanimous ruling issued the same day, the Commission held that the City had abused its discretion by refusing to grant a fee waiver for PLN’s public records request, as the City “did not take into consideration the purpose for which the information was sought or the benefit to the public from its disclosure and publication.” Further, the Commission rejected the City’s argument that waiving the $27.50 fee would constitute a financial burden, observing that if such a proposition was accepted it “would effectively lead to denials of all fee waivers, eviscerating the [FOI fee waiver] statute.” The City was ordered to provide PLN with “a copy of the requested records free of charge.”

The Commission upheld the City’s refusal to produce the requested records in electronic format, finding that the re-cords were not maintained in electronic format in the City’s computer system.

“The spirit and force of the Freedom of Information Act was evident in a small Connecticut hearing room today,” said Ms. Dignam. Ms. Gallagher agreed, stating, “As a result of this decision, media organizations such as Prison Legal News will be able to obtain and disseminate information that is truly essential to securing an informed people and promoting self-governance.”

“This ruling affirms the importance of ensuring public access to public records,” noted PLN editor Paul Wright. “It is unfortunate that the City chose to expend substantial resources, far in excess of the purported $27.50 copying fee, to argue against its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.” Apparently, however, the City’s attorneys were not done spending taxpayer money in an effort to prevent PLN from obtaining a public records fee waiver.

On November 12, 2009, the City appealed the FOI Commission’s ruling to Superior Court. The City paid a $300 fee to file the appeal – over ten times the amount of the $27.50 fee the City had demanded for copies of the public records requested by PLN.

“This gives new meaning to ‘penny-wise and pound-foolish,’” said Wright. “The City of Hartford is spending far more money, resources and staff time in its attempt to use high fees to deny media access to government records. This is a financial defeat for Hartford taxpayers whose City attorney refused to simply fax documents by claiming his office was not required to do so.”

According to a July 1, 2009 letter from Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, the City’s budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 was “the toughest budget ever.” Mayor Perez noted that “sacrifice on all levels has been made and will continue to be made” due to the “harshest economic times since the Great Depression.” The staff at the Office of Corporation Counsel must not have received that memo, as they continue to expend public funds to fight PLN’s public records case and the City stands to lose money even if it eventually prevails, having spent $300 to appeal a $27.50 fee waiver. All of which could have been avoided had the requested documents been emailed or faxed to PLN at no government cost.

PLN will vigorously oppose the City’s appeal, and is represented in Superior Court by Ms. Dignam, Ms. Gallagher and Megan Quattlebaum – a Yale law student. See: In the Matter of a Complaint by Paul Wright, et al. against Office of the Corporation Counsel, City of Hartford, FOI Commission of the State of Connecticut, Docket #FIC 2009-018, on appeal at Office of City Corporation v. Freedom of Information Commission, Superior Court, Judicial District of New Britain, Connecticut.

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Related legal case

Paul Wright, et al. v. Office of the Corporation Counsel, City of Hartford

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case. Pleadings may also be viewed by clicking the "PLN in Action" map on the home page.