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Vermont Court Orders Centurion to Cough Up Records in HRDC Suit

by Matt Clarke

 

On November 7, 2023, a Vermont court ruled in favor of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), publisher of PLN and Criminal Legal News, in its request for records from Centurion of Vermont related to its contract to provide medical, dental and mental health care to prisoners of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) between 2015 and 2020.

Pursuant to the Vermont Public Records Act (PRA), 1 V.S.A. subchapter 3, HRDC requested that Centurion disclose records related to any legal claims that resulted in expenditures of $1,000 or more. Centurion responded that it was not subject to the PRA. Aided by Burlington attorney Robert Appeal and in-house counsel, HRDC sued Centurion for disclosure.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Centurion alleged it was not subject to PRA, and if it was, the records were not public records, and, if they were, the records were exempt from disclosure pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 317(c).

But the Court found controlling the decision in Hum. Rights Def. Ctr. v. Correct Care Sols., LLC, 263 A.3d 1260 (Vt. 2021), agreeing with the nonprofit that Centurion’s contract with DOC made it an “instrumentality” of the state and subject to PRA. Having picked the low-hanging fruit of PRA’s application, the Court moved on to a thornier issue not decided in the earlier case, the extent to which the requested records are “public records” subject to disclosure.

The Court noted that HRDC’s disclosure request was so broad that it could cover records not related to Centurion’s contract with DOC. However, under PRA’s broad definition of “public record,” the records requested that are related to the DOC contract are public records, the Court said. It rejected Centurion’s position that the records involved only its private business interests because the state had no control over how it handled its litigation,

“If, for example, Centurion provided such care to a prisoner who later came to believe that the care was negligent and sued Centurion, the Court is hard-pressed to see how related records would not reflect on the very government business undertaken by Centurion,” the Court wrote. “The point is not that any such lawsuit had merit or that any decision to settle means that there was merit, but by directly arising out of the governmental undertaking delegated to Centurion, such records plainly would reflect government, rather than purely private, business.”

For requested documents that were confidential settlements—the focus of the case—the Court held that they also were not exempt “by law” pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(1), since a secrecy agreement is not a law. The records were also not exempt pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 317(c)(7) for containing potentially harmful personal information, the Court said, since no such examples of potentially harmful personal information were presented, and such information could be redacted by Centurion anyway.

The court ordered HRDC to clarify the scope of its records request and ordered Centurion then to produce the records, creating an index of any withheld, pursuant to Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973). Centurion was also ordered to notify any third parties to confidentiality agreements that were part of the requested records of the potential disclosure so they could have an opportunity to intervene in the lawsuit. See: Hum. Rights Defense Ctr. v. Centurion of Vt. LLC, 2023 Vt. Super. LEXIS 170.

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Related legal case

Hum. Rights Defense Ctr. v. Centurion of Vt. LLC