Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Judge excoriates city in public records row

Worcester, Mass., City Hall
(Mass. Office of Travel & Tourism CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr)
In a remarkable opinion in January 2022, the Massachusetts Superior Court excoriated the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, for failure to comply with a newspaper's public records request investigating police misconduct.

In 2018, GateHouse Media, owner of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and a subsidiary of Gannett, filed a Massachusetts freedom of information act (FOIA) request for files related to investigations of Worcester police in civil rights matters. The Telegram's interest was spurred by Worcester attorney Hector E. Pineiro, who was upset by police interaction with his son.

The city resisted production of the records because, it argued, they were part of ongoing litigation involving police officers. The Massachusetts FOIA has no litigation exemption per se, but officials shield some records under the deliberative process exemption, relating to policy positions still in development. The city grossly over-relied on that strategy, the court concluded in June 2021 after a rare FOIA trial.

GateHouse Media persisted with its case even after shaking lose the records, demanding that the city be permanently enjoined from similar baseless argument in the future and be charged with punitive damages. In January, the Superior Court, per Justice Janet Kenton-Walker, substantially sided with GateHouse, finding that the city had acted in bad faith and needlessly protracted the litigation and costs for years.

Not only did the city rely erroneously on the text of statute, Justice Kenton-Walker opined, it "cherry-picked certain language from ... cases, taking it out of context." And the city had an ugly history with the same issue. The court explained:

[T]he court cannot ignore that [the city] originally took [its] position in spite of the fact that the city was one of the parties to, and thus aware of, Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp. v. Chief of Police of Worcester (Mass. App. Ct. 2003). In that case, the Appeals Court held that materials in a "Worcester police department internal affairs file ... compiled during an investigation of a citizen complaint," were public records. That court stated explicitly that "[i]t would be odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny as 'personnel [file] or information' the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence" (emphasis added).

The court declined to award an injunction, reasoning that the threat of litigation should provide sufficient deterrence. "Simply put, the court expects the city to follow the law now and in the future," the judge wrote.

But the court did order the city to pay $5,000 in "punitive damages." That's at the top of a range allowed by state law when public officials act in bad faith. The money goes to the state Public Records Assistance Fund, rather than to the plaintiff.

According to the Telegram in February, Pineiro said that "he believes the city fought 'tooth and nail' to avoid producing the records because it did not want the public to see a police internal disciplinary process he labeled a 'sham.'"

The city wrote in a statement, the Telegram reported, that it would "move on" and not appeal.

The case is GateHouse Media, LLC v. City of Worcester, No. 1885CV1526A (Mass. Super. Ct. Jan. 26, 2022).

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