A Tennessee appellate court held the sheriff of Marshall County had willfully denied access to public records requested by PLN. Consequently, the plaintiff was entitled to attorney fees after filing a lawsuit to compel production of the records.
In February 2014, PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann requested various policies and contracts, including policies related to prisoners’ medical care and the telephone contract, from the Marshall County jail. The sheriff refused to produce the records unless Friedmann appeared at the jail in person, which was not required under Tennessee’s public records law. After repeated delays, Friedmann retained counsel and filed suit in chancery court.
At trial the sheriff stated he wouldn’t provide public records to just anyone, and said he drove to the address listed on Friedmann’s driver’s license, couldn’t verify whether Friedmann – who had lived in Tennessee for over 20 years – was a state resident, and reported him to the state Department of Homeland Security. However, his testimony conflicted with the repeated denials Friedmann had received via email from the sheriff’s office.
The chancery court ruled in Friedmann’s favor and ordered production of the records at no cost, but denied reasonable attorney’s fees. [See: PLN, Jan. 2015, p.32].
Friedmann appealed the denial of fees. The appellate court’s June 24, 2015 order began by reciting the numerous efforts Friedmann made to obtain the records after being informed he must appear in person to make his request, which included obtaining a formal opinion from the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel. The Court of Appeals held the imposition of a personal appearance condition to receive public records was not permissible under the state’s public records law.
The appellate court then turned to the issue of attorney’s fees. The chancery court found fees were not awardable because the sheriff’s conduct was not “willful” and in bad faith. The Court of Appeals held 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 trial court had focused on the sheriff’s advice from counsel that he could require Friedmann to appear in person to obtain the records. In several emails with the sheriff’s office, however, 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 attached an opinion from the Office of Open Records Counsel in support of his position, and counsel from that office contacted the Marshall County attorney 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.” The trial court had thus abused its discretion in denying attorney’s fees and costs; the judgment order was reversed and remanded to award reasonable fees and costs. Appellate costs were assessed against Marshall County. See: Friedmann v. Marshall County, 471 S.W.3d 427 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015).
Following remand, on January 26, 2016 the chancery court awarded $8,982.50 in fees to Friedmann’s attorney, Robert A. Dalton, Jr.
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Related legal case
Friedmann v. Marshall County
|471 S.W.3d 427 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015).
|State Court of Appeals