Raytown’s city clerk “purposefully” violated the law when she spurned a request for public records related to a fatal traffic accident, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.
The decision has far-reaching implications for citizens' access to public documents covered by Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
The appeals court upheld a trial court's ruling that ordered the clerk, Teresa Henry, to pay $38,550 in attorney fees and a $4,000 civil penalty to the plaintiff in the case, Paula Wyrick.
The case clarifies when public officials can deny a request for public records based on the Sunshine Law’s exception for records that are considered “related to” litigation.
Henry had claimed she did not have to release traffic safety records requested by Wyrick because Wyrick had sent a notice saying she might sue the city.
“This decision is a godsend,” said Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City media attorney who was not involved in the case. “I can’t tell you how many times I get an objection that a document is closed because it relates to a lawsuit or relates to an investigation.”
In finding that Henry violated the Sunshine Law, the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City concluded “that public records do not have a ‘clear nexus’ to litigation merely because they could be relevant (that is, discoverable or admissible) in litigation threatened by a requesting party.”
Henry did not return a call seeking comment. Henry’s attorney, Wesley Carrillo, could not be reached for comment.
Wyrick’s mother, Cecile Leggio, was killed on New Year’s eve 2016 when the car she was driving was struck by another car as she was turning right at the intersection of 67th Street and Ralston Avenue in Raytown.
Wyrick sought city records pertaining to the safety and design of the intersection, which she claimed had limited visibility due to its topography, foliage and other obstructions.
Henry denied her request, invoking the Sunshine Law litigation exception. Wyrick’s attorney countered that public records were not exempt from disclosure merely because a lawsuit might be filed.
Ultimately, Wyrick did file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, claiming it should have known the intersection was dangerous and taken steps to remedy the situation. Earlier this year, the city settled with Wyrick for $87,500 and agreed to take steps to make the intersection safer.
In ruling that Henry violated the Sunshine Law, the appeals court said that the mere threat of litigation is not sufficient to exempt public records from disclosure.
“Henry’s argument would permit public governmental bodies to rely on the litigation exception ‘as a basis for closing virtually any record’ in a manner that would ‘be inconsistent with the requirement that exceptions to the (Sunshine Law) be strictly construed,’” the court ruled, citing a 1997 case out of the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Rhodes cited the example of police denying Sunshine Law requests for surveillance footage taken at a business where a crime has been committed, even though the footage was not created by the police.
“It's a preexisting document that is not like a chameleon that changes its colors and now all of a sudden is a criminal investigation record,” Rhodes said. “And that's what this case says. You have to look at the inherent nature of the document, not its subsequent use in a lawsuit or in a criminal investigation.”
Kansas City attorney Chris Dandurand, who represented Wyrick, said the appeals court’s decision provides “some clarity and some guidance for government entities facing these Sunshine requests, particularly with regard to the litigation exception.”
In addition to upholding Burnett’s award of attorney fees and her imposition of a civil penalty, the appeals court sent the case back to her to determine attorney fees Wyrick incurred as a result of Henry’s appeal.
The decision comes a week after a Boone County judge ruled that the University of Missouri had knowingly violated the Sunshine Law when it sought to charge an animal rights group $82,000 for records related to 179 dogs and cats used in MU’s research.
“After hearing the evidence, the Court finds that there is nothing so complex, unique or burdensome about the information sought that would require a requestor to pay in excess of $450 just to get the records for a single dog or cat,” Judge Jeff Harris wrote in his decision in the case.
Harris ordered the university to pay a $1,000 fine, pay the animal rights group’s attorney fees and cough up the records for a reasonable fee.
A pending lawsuit brought by a nonprofit group called Reclaim the Records alleges the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services initially sought to charge it $1.5 million for state birth and death records it requested under the Sunshine Law.
That case, which was filed nearly four years ago, seeks civil penalties for the department’s “knowing or purposeful violations of the Sunshine Law” as well as costs and attorney fees.
Rhodes, who represents Reclaim the Records, said the court is expected to schedule a hearing soon on his request for summary judgment.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.