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Florida Supreme Court says agencies that unlawfully withhold public records must pay attorney’s fees, even if they acted in good faith

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The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that a prevailing plaintiff in a Public Records Act case is entitled to recover statutory attorney’s fees from the public agency that unlawfully denied access to the records.

And now for some good news about open government in Florida.  The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that a prevailing plaintiff in a Public Records Act case is entitled to recover statutory attorney’s fees from the public agency that unlawfully denied access to the records.  To recover fees, there is “no additional requirement” that the plaintiff prove the agency acted unreasonably or in bad faith.  Board of Trustees, Jacksonville Police & Fire Pension Fund v. Lee, No. SC13-1315 (April 14, 2016).

Conflict Resolved

The Lee decision is critically important because it resolves a troubling and unnecessary conflict that has existed for years in Florida’s District Courts of Appeal.  Two of those Districts – the First and Second – have consistently (and correctly) held that a plaintiff is entitled to recover attorney’s fees without proving that the public agency denying access to records acted unreasonably or in bad faith.  But the three other Districts – the Thirds, Fourth, and Fifth – have held otherwise, requiring proof of unreasonableness or bad faith.  The Lee decision reads the Public Records Act to mean just what it says – if an agency “unlawfully” refuses to permit a public record to be inspected or copied, the court “shall assess and award” attorney’s fees.  Fla. Stat. § 119.12.

Public Records are Critical to Florida’s Democracy

In addition to clarifying this vital issue, the Court went out of its way to emphasize the centrality and importance of open government to our system of democracy.  In particular, the Lee Court reiterated that:

  • The purpose of the Public Records Act is “to allow Florida’s citizens to discover the actions of their government,” which is a “cornerstone of our political culture.”
  • The Act’s attorney fee provision serves the “dual role of deterring agencies from wrongfully denying access to public records and encouraging individuals to continue pursuing their right to access public records.”
  • A separate provision in the Act requiring agencies to respond to public records requests in “good faith” is actually meant to “strengthen the responsibilities of records custodians” to disclose public records.
In light of the Lee Court’s recognition of the importance of government oversight, and the salutary role that attorney’s fees play in public records disputes, here’s hoping that, in the future, Florida public agencies will be fully acknowledge the public’s right of access to government records.