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Tennessee Sheriff’s Willful Denial of Public Records Merits PLN Attorney Fee Award

On June 24, 2015, a Tennessee appellate court found the sheriff of Marshall County had willfully denied access to public records requested by Prison Legal News, and held that PLN was entitled to attorney fees after filing suit to obtain the records.

As previously reported, in February 2014, PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann requested copies of contracts and policies, including policies relating to prisoner medical care, in effect at the Marshall County Jail. Sheriff Norman Dalton refused to comply with the request unless Friedmann appeared in person – which was not required by Tennessee’s public records law. Friedmann filed suit in chancery court, and following a trial the court ordered production of the records at no cost but declined to award attorney fees and costs.

Friedmann’s counsel, Robert Dalton (the sheriff’s brother), appealed the denial of fees and costs. The appellate court’s order began by reciting the extensive efforts Friedmann had made to obtain the records after they were denied by the sheriff, who had relied on incorrect advice from the county attorney. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.32]. The Court of Appeals held the imposition of a personal appearance condition to obtain public records was not allowed under Tennessee state law.

The Court then turned to the issue of attorney fees. The trial court had held fees were not warranted because the sheriff’s conduct was not “willful” and in bad faith. The appellate court, however, found the willfulness determination “should focus on whether there is an absence of good faith with respect to the legal position a municipality relies on in support of its refusal of records.”

The chancery court focused on the sheriff’s reliance on advice from legal counsel that he could require Friedmann to appear in person to obtain the records. Yet in several emails with the Sheriff’s Office, Friedmann “repeatedly insisted that he was not required to appear in person in order to make a public records request,” the appellate court wrote. He also provided an opinion from the Office of Open Records Counsel that supported his position, and the Open Records Counsel contacted the attorney for Marshall County to personally advise him “that citizens were not required to appear in person to make a public records request.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that the sheriff’s “insistence on a personal appearance constituted a willful denial of access to the requested records,” and that the chancery court had abused its discretion in denying attorney fees and costs. The case was reversed and remanded to determine and award reasonable fees and costs; appellate costs were taxed against Marshall County. See: Friedmann v. Marshall County, 471 S.W.3d 427 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015).

Following remand, the chancery court awarded $8,982.50 in attorney fees and costs to Friedmann’s counsel on January 26, 2016. 

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Related legal case

Friedmann v. Marshall County