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HRDC Prevails Over Wellpath as Vermont Supreme Court Rules Private Contractor Must Release Public Records

by David M. Reutter

The Vermont Supreme Court concluded that under the Public Records Act (PRA) when “the state contracts with a private entity to discharge the entirety of a fundamental and uniquely governmental obligation owed to its citizens, that entity acts as an ‘instrumentality’ of the State.” That conclusion led the Court to find that Wellpath was required under the PRA to release “any records relating to legal actions and settlements arising” from the care it provided to Vermont prisoners.

The Court’s September 3, 2021 order was issued in an appeal by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the publisher of PLN. From 2010 to 2015, Correct Care Solutions, now known as Wellpath LLC, held a contract with the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide medical care to every person in DOC’s custody. The contract paid Wellpath over $91 million.

In 2015, HRDC sent Wellpath a PRA request seeking public records relating to all payouts for claims, lawsuits, or contracts arising from Wellpath’s provision of services under that contract. Wellpath declined to provide the requested documents, asserting that as a private entity it was not subject to the PRA. HRDC sent another request for those documents in 2017. Wellpath did not respond.

HRDC filed an action in Superior Court seeking to compel disclosure under the PRA. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted Wellpath’s motion. It applied the functional-equivalency test to determine if Wellpath was acting as a public agency, and it found Wellpath did not act as such “because the provision of healthcare is not a public function.” HRDC appealed.

The Vermont Supreme Court, in a 4-0 opinion, noted the PRA directs for liberal construction of the right to disclosure of records so the public knows what their government is up to. The Court did not determine whether Wellpath was a functional equivalent of a public agency. Rather, it found that Wellpath was an instrumentality of DOC during the contract period.

DOC had a statutory obligation to provide healthcare to its prisoners, and Wellpath, via the contract, became “the sole means through which the the DOC carried out the function of providing medical care to incarcerated persons.” Wellpath exercised the authority of the State in administering DOC’s policies on medical care. As such, Wellpath became an instrumentality of DOC and was subject to the disclosure obligations of the PRA.

The trial court’s order was reversed and remanded for a determination of what documents were public records and whether any statutory exemptions applied. HRDC general counsel Dan Marshall briefed and argued the case before the Vermont Supreme Court. Robert Appel served as local counsel in the case. An amicus brief was filed on behalf of HRDC by the Vermont ACLU, the New England First Amendment Association, and Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos and Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer. See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Correct Care Solutions LLC, 2021 VT 63. 

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Related legal case

Human Rights Defense Center v. Correct Care Solutions LLC