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PLN prevails in ruling by CT FOIA Commission in public records case

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2009.
Press release - PLN prevails in ruling by CT FOIA Commission in public records case 2009

PRESS RELEASE

Prison Legal News – For Immediate Release

September 24, 2009


FOI COMMISSION RULES AGAINST CITY OF HARTFORD IN PUBLIC RECORDS CASE; CITY ORDERED TO PRODUCE RECORDS

Hartford, CT – Yesterday, the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission held that the City of Hartford had improperly denied a fee waiver in a public records request submitted by Prison Legal News (PLN), a non-profit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues. The City was ordered to produce the records without cost after the Commission found it "had no objective, fair or reasonable basis for denying" the fee waiver.

Last year, PLN requested copies of documents in a lawsuit filed against the City of Hartford related to a prisoner’s suicide that resulted in a $403,164 judgment against the City. The records were requested in electronic format, such as via email or fax, and PLN asked for a fee waiver because the documents were to be used in news reporting that would benefit the public.

The Corporation Counsel for Hartford denied PLN’s request for a fee waiver, deciding it was not in the general welfare to grant the waiver. The City also declined to produce the records in electronic format, stating they were not maintained electronically and the City was not required to fax the documents or convert them to electronic format. The City demanded a fee of $27.50 to produce copies of the records.

PLN appealed this decision to the Freedom of Information Commission, and a hearing was held before Commissioner Sherman D. London on April 17, 2009. The hearing resulted in a proposed final decision to affirm the City’s denial of a fee waiver and refusal to produce the requested records in electronic format. Represented by attorney Brett Dignam at Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, and Robyn Gallagher, a second-year law student at Western New England College School of Law, PLN presented its case before the full five-member Freedom of Information Commission on September 23.

In a decision released the same day, the Commission held the City had abused its discretion by refusing to grant a fee waiver for the public records requested by PLN, as the City "did not take into consideration the purpose for which the information was sought or the benefit to the public from its disclosure and publication." Further, the Commission rejected the City’s argument that waiving the $27.50 fee would constitute a financial burden, observing that if such a proposition was accepted it "would effectively lead to denials of all fee waivers, eviscerating the [FOIA fee waiver] statute." The Commission upheld the City’s refusal to produce the requested records in electronic format, finding the records were not contained in the City’s computer system.

The City of Hartford was ordered to provide PLN with "a copy of the requested records free of charge," in either hard copy or electronic format.

"The spirit and force of the Freedom of Information Act was evident in a small Connecticut hearing room today," said Ms. Dignam. "The Commissioners took the extraordinary steps of unanimously reversing the proposed decision of the hearing examiner (who was also a member of the full panel), declining to remand for further proceedings, ordering disclosure and granting the fee waiver."

Ms. Gallagher agreed, stating, "As a result of this decision, media organizations such as Prison Legal News will be able to obtain and disseminate information that is truly essential to securing an informed people and promoting self-governance. These underlying principles are what made this such an important and exciting case for me to work on and I am truly privileged to have received this opportunity while in law school."

"We are very pleased with the Commission’s decision," said PLN editor Paul Wright. "This ruling affirms the importance of ensuring public access to public records. It is unfortunate that the City chose to expend substantial resources, far in excess of the purported $27.50 copying fee, to argue against its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act."

The case is In the Matter of a Complaint by Paul Wright, et al. against Office of the Corporation Counsel, City of Hartford, FOI Commission of the State of Connecticut, Docket #FIC 2009-018.

Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. PLN publishes a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents. PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.


For further information, please contact:

Paul Wright
Prison Legal News, Editor
P.O. Box 2420
West Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 275-8594 or
(802) 257-1342
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

Brett Dignam, Attorney
Yale Law School
Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization
P.O. Box 209090
New Haven, CT 06520-9090
(203) 432-8294
brett.dignam@yale.edu