Thursday, January 28, 2016

Florida bills would let judges deny attorney fees to winning plaintiffs in open-records cases

A Florida Senate panel this week approved a bill that threatens the state's Sunshine Law for open government by eliminating mandatory awards of attorney fees "when plaintiffs prevail in public records lawsuits that prove that government agencies have violated the law," Grant Stern reports for PINAC News, a advocacy group that promotes the rights of photographers to film police misconduct. A state House committee previously voted to make attorney fees a matter of discretion for judges.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told Arek Sarkissian of the Naples Daily News, "No attorney is going to take the case if they aren't sure they're going to get paid. We know there are some bad actors who are taking advantage of this, but there are better ways to address the issue."

The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) argued that "his bill would trust a judge to determine whether a public records lawsuit was filed in bad faith," Sarkissian writes. He said he filed the bill in response to a 2014 incident in which the owner of a law firm under investigation was accused of filing hundreds of public record requests "so that he could file claims for legal fees."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 other news organizations told legislators in a letter that the bills are "contrary to trends at both the state and federal level," and "financial hurdles can, and frequently do, prevent journalists and members of the public" from going to court to challenge denial of open-records requests, while "Mandatory fee shifting provisions also create a financial incentive for state and local government officials and agencies to consistently comply with public records laws when responding to requests for access."

Florida law "allows people to sue agencies for records and guarantees payment of legal fees if a lawsuit is successful," Sarkissian notes. Some state agencies "deny the public access to public records, requiring them to obtain a court order before the information is released. The bill would require an agency to acknowledge a request within five days of receiving it. That change would prevent lawyers from filing a lawsuit the same day as the request."

Paula Dockery, a former Republican legislator, wrote in a column for The Miami Herald: "In their role as watchdogs, reporters and editors alert the public when there is something controversial, unethical, illegal or just questionable. They rely on these laws to gather information the public has a right and a need to see. . . . The continual erosion of our public records law is gutting Government in the Sunshine and—ironically—it’s all being done in the open."

No comments: