Showing posts with label public records. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public records. Show all posts

Monday, September 27, 2021

FOIA requesters need protection against retaliation; in egregious case, court allows First Amendment theory

Intersection of state highways 42 & 61 in Conyngham Town, Pa.
(2019 photo by Mr. Matté CC BY-SA 3.0)
A bizarre FOIA case decided by the Third Circuit suggests that use of an open records act in the public interest triggers constitutional protection against retaliation under the First Amendment.

A businessperson and landlord in Conyngham, Pennsylvania, John McGee used the state freedom of information act (FOIA), called the Right to Know Act, to investigate his suspicions of financial malfeasance in town government.  A town supervisor then sent to McGee, you read that correctly, a demand for private business information, purportedly issued in the name of the town and under the authority of the FOIA.

McGee asked the board of supervisors for an explanation, and they refused to give any.  In a lawsuit, McGee alleged violation of substantive due process rights and the First Amendment.  He alleged that he did not know that the town's demand was unlawful and unenforceable.

The district court dismissed both counts; the Third Circuit reversed and remanded on the First Amendment claim.  The court explained:

In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, “a plaintiff must … [prove]: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action.” Thomas v. Indep. Twp.... (3d Cir. 2006). There does not appear to be any dispute that McGee engaged in constitutionally protected speech, nor that there was evidence of a causal link between his speech and the Right-to-Know request [supervisor Linda] Tarlecki gave him.

Only the middle prong was at issue on appeal, and the court found sufficient evidence for McGee to fend off summary judgment.  The test for deterrence is objective, the Third Circuit emphasized, so it doesn't really matter whether McGee was deterred as a matter of fact.

What intrigues me about the case is the apparently non-controverted question of element (1).  The Third Circuit opinion is ambiguous on what serves so self-evidently as McGee's constitutionally protected conduct.  McGee previously had been critical, in public testimony, of the board of supervisors for how it managed the housing code, but that doesn't seem to be the impetus for retaliation here.  His FOIA request may be construed as a petition of government or as a precursor to further public criticism.  The court did not specify.

In the law of the United States, at the federal level and in most states, requesting access to information is a statutory privilege, not a constitutional right per se.  There is a strong argument that the distinction is immaterial to attachment of the First Amendment right to petition to a FOIA request.  But de facto, in my work in FOIA advocacy, retaliation against FOIA requesters is a real and serious risk.  When asked for counsel by persons contemplating use of FOIA to investigate government, I warn would-be requesters of the possibility of retaliation.

If the First Amendment affords protection against retaliation, it's not an easily won theory.  First, there are practical problems.  Finding an attorney willing to bring a First Amendment claim against government is neither easy nor cheap.  Civil rights litigation and First Amendment law are both complicated.  Attorneys who practice in civil rights prefer the familiar patterns of discrimination and harassment based on race or gender.  In small legal communities such as Arkansas's, attorneys are loath to sue sugar-daddy government.  The thin possibility of winning attorney fees, even with a multiplier, upon a convincing legal victory is not enough to incentivize counsel.

Second, legal problems loom on the merits.  Usually problematic is the third element, causation.  The conduct here in McGee is unusual in its blatant motive.  Ordinarily, when local officials deny zoning variances, liquor licenses, or other privileges to applicants who happen to be accountability mavens, the causal connection cannot be shown to a constitutionally satisfactory certainty.

Element (1) is often a problem, too, because would-be requesters are also often would-be whistleblowers.  Under the muddled constitutional jurisprudence of the rights of public employees, the First Amendment does not preclude being fired for blowing the whistle on malfeasance in one's government workplace, much less the act of filing a state FOIA request to the same end.

There's a cruel irony of inefficiency in our First Amendment jurisprudence in that public employees are least protected when they speak of what they know best.  The jurisprudence rather favors being a team player in government.  Defectors, however righteous, must seek protection in statute, where there might be none.

When I worked on FOIA advocacy issues in Arkansas, before I moved to Rhode Island in 2011, I aided Reps. Dan Greenberg and Andrea Lea with 2009 H.B. 1052, which amended the state whistleblower protection statute with express protection for the use of FOIA.  Opponents of the bill argued that it was unnecessary, because existing law protected state employees in communicating concerns to elected officials.  My experience suggested that an elected official carelessly chosen was as likely to burn a whistleblower as to facilitate accountability.

More aggressive protection of FOIA requesters should be the norm throughout the United States.  Retaliation should not have to be as overtly wrongful as in McGee to trigger protection, whether statutory or constitutional.

The case is McGee v. Township of Conyngham, No. 20-3229 (3d Cir. Sept. 23, 2021).  U.S. Circuit Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote the opinion of a unanimous panel that also comprised Judges Marjorie Rendell and David J. Porter.  HT @ Prof. Rob Steinbuch and Prof. Eugene Volokh (Volokh Conspiracy).

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Latest installment of Trump family litigation saga includes tortious interference claim against media

A leaked Trump 1040 from 2005
Former President Donald Trump has sued his niece, Mary Trump, and The New York Times Co. in the latest installment of intrafamilial litigation related to Mary's 2020 book, Too Much and Never Enough.

Filed yesterday in Dutchess County, New York, this latest lawsuit (complaint at CNS; Times's own coverage) mainly alleges breach of contract in the earlier settlement of litigation by Mary against Donald over the handling of the estate of Donald's father, Fred, who died in 1999.  I wrote on the course blog for my Trump Litigation Seminar in 2020 about another lawsuit, which is ongoing, by Mary against Donald over the estate of her father, Fred, Jr.; and about a suit by Donald's brother Robert, who died in 2020, which failed to enjoin publication of Mary's book.

The instant complaint alleges that Mary Trump was the source of Trump tax records published by The New York Times in its 2020 exposé.  The bits that interest me are counts of tortious interference with contract and of "aiding and abetting" tortious interference—or the civil equivalent of aiding and abetting, more accurately described as "providing substantial assistance or encouragement"—against the Times.  The complaint alleges that the Times "relentlessly" encouraged Mary to leak the tax records while knowing full well that doing so would breach her confidentiality agreement.

An intentional tort, tortious interference is not confined to business or media, though it's often classified as a "business tort," its usual injury being economic loss.  And it's often included in mass comm law treatments as a "media tort," because it's sometimes deployed against news media.

The paradigmatic case of an interference tort leveled against news media is the threat of Brown & Williamson Tobacco to sue CBS for its 1995 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand in violation of Wigand's non-disclosure agreement.  There is a classic scene in the feature film about the matter, The Insider, in which CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) loses his marbles upon admonition by CBS counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) that truth is not a defense to interference, rather is an aggravating factor.  "What is this, Alice in Wonderland?" Bergman wonders aloud.  The instant Trump case is compelling for its similarity to the Insider facts.  

Interference as a media tort in the public imagination, or at least the lawyer-public imagination, surfaces periodically.  I wrote about the issue in 2011 when Wikileaks for a while threatened to spill the secrets of big banks.  (That fizzled.)  The high incidence of non-disclosure agreements in settlements of Me Too matters, and the former President's enthusiasm for NDAs combined to fuel another spurtive engagement with the issue in recent years. 

The issue prompts sky-is-falling missives from media because the role of, or any role for, the First Amendment as a defense to tortious interference is fuzzy.  In reality, the problem rarely gets that far.  Without unpacking the nitty gritty, it suffices to say that tortious interference has public policy built into its rigorous heuristic.  It is prohibitively difficult to press the tort against a publisher operating with at least a gloss of public interest.

The Trump complaint tries to circumnavigate that problem by accusing the Times of profit motive in its pursuit and publication of the tax records.  But the history of tort litigation against mass media is littered with failed attempts to drive the stake of profit-making through the heart of the journalistic mission.  Whatever degradations have afflicted mass media in our age of misinformation, no court is going to buy the argument against the Times on that score, at least not on these facts—cf. Palin v. N.Y. Times (N.Y. Times), in which the alleged editorial misconduct is substantially more egregious.

The case is Trump v. Trump, Index No. 2021-53963 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Sept. 21, 2021).

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Court rejects qui tam suit against big banks because whistleblower relied on publicly available data

"Big Ballin' Money Shot" by Louish Pixel CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A whistleblower alleged that a who's who of big banks is improperly manipulating the municipal bond market to profit at the expense of Massachusetts taxpayers.  But the Massachusetts high court today rejected the whistleblower's lawsuit because he relied on public data.

This case is of interest because it arises under, and narrows, a state false claims act.  With the federal government doling out billions of dollars in pandemic relief to corporate America, I've predicted, and it doesn't take a crystal ball, that we're going to see a rise in corruption and a corresponding rise in enforcement actions.  One key enforcement mechanism is a false claims act.  In anticipation of good work to be had for lawyers in the false claims vein in coming years, I added the subject this spring to coverage in my 1L Torts II class.

False claims cases, or "qui tam actions," allow any person, a member of the general public called "a relator," to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the government, that is, the public, to recover money lost to fraud or misfeasance.  Derived conceptually from Roman law and carried on in Anglo-American common law for centuries, "qui tam" is short for a Latin phrase meaning one who sues on behalf of the king and for oneself.  Relators are incentivized by being entitled to a cut of any recovery.  Qui tam is authorized in the United States by federal law (§§ 3729-3722, and at DOJ) and the laws of many states (at Mass. AG), varying in their particulars, and also can be a part of sectoral enforcement mechanisms, especially in healthcare and finance.

In the instant case, relator "B.J." Johan Rosenberg, an investment analyst and capital adviser with experience in municipal securities, alleged that banks are pricing municipal bonds and manipulating the market in ways that profitably breach their obligations to their public clients.  Defendants in the Massachusetts case include Chase, Citi, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) dug into the particulars, which make my eyes glaze over and remind me why I have a financial adviser.  Suffice to say that Rosenberg understands this stuff well.  In 2019, Bloomberg described him as the "mystery man behind $3.6 billion in muni lawsuits," referring to qui tam actions in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts.  In 2015, Bloomberg reported, Rosenberg patented "MuniPriceTracker," a software designed to "ferret out Wall Street chicanery."

Rosenberg's analytical software is key in the instant case, and there the problem arises.  The false claims act in Massachusetts law (§§ 5A to 5O), as in federal law, bars claims based on publicly available information, whether from government reports or "news media."  The theory is that a qui tam statute should incentivize whistle-blowing by persons privy to information that the government and public are not, rather than potentially rewarding someone who rushes to the courthouse with old information.  As the SJC put it: "Where the essential features of an individual's purported chicanery already have been illuminated, ... affording a private party an incentive to bring suit is unwarranted, as it would add nothing to the Commonwealth's knowledge[.]"

The tricky bit in the instant case is that Rosenberg ran his software analysis on publicly available data.  That sourcing disallowed his action.  The court reasoned: "[I]t suffices that other members of the public, albeit with sufficient expertise and after having conducted some analysis, could have identified the true state of affairs by conducting the same data-crunching exercise as did the relator, using the data publicly available on the [Electronic Municipal Market Access] website."

Well, maybe.  To me, the phrase, "with sufficient expertise" is working overtime in that reasoning.  Rosenberg's method is sophisticated enough to be patent-worthy.  I don't think the average taxpayer spends weekends crunching market numbers, however publicly available they are.  And there's no evidence that anyone's doing it at the AG's office, either.  I worry that this narrowing of false claims to exclude "sweat of the brow" extrapolation from public records ill equips society to respond to sophisticated corporate malfeasance that can be revealed only by equally sophisticated detective work.

But I've already confessed my ignorance of finance.  You can read the 36-page opinion and decide for yourself.  Or choose among the views of the amici: the CFA Institute and Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund supported Rosenberg, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and New England Legal Foundation supported the banks.

The case is Rosenberg v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., No. SJC-12973 (Mass. May 11, 2020).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the opinion, affirming the lower court, for a unanimous SJC of six justices.  She was an accomplished patent attorney before going on the bench.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

State DA cannot shield FBI records from public disclosure under federal FOIA exemption

The federal Freedom of Information Act cannot be used to block public access to FBI records in the hands of state law enforcement, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on New Year's Eve.

Rahim in a yearbook photo obtained by CNN from the Brookline library.
In 2015, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Boston police detective shot and killed Usaamah Rahim when he approached officers and refused to drop a 13-inch knife.  Rahim was under investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force for suspected ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS).  The officers were cleared in the shooting.

In 2017, under the Massachusetts public records law (PRL), the district attorney (DA) gave Rahim's mother access to more than 1,100 documents in the investigation.  However, she was denied access to documents that the FBI had loaned to the DA and designated as confidential.

That denial was in error, the Court ruled.  In conjunction with the federal district attorney and the FBI, the DA argued in court that the loaned records could not be disclosed under state law because the records are owned by the federal government, or, alternatively, that the incorporation of "other laws" as disclosure exemptions in the Massachusetts PRL required the operation of disclosure exemptions in the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and federal Privacy Act.

The Court rejected both arguments.  First, the Massachusetts PRL turns expressly on the receipt (or creation) of records by public officials, not ownership.  "If every public records request also required the requestor to conduct something akin to a title search," the Court reasoned, "then the public would necessarily be stymied in its quest for greater government transparency."

Second, the Court opined that the federal FOIA and Privacy Act both, on their own terms, apply to federal agencies, so are not compulsory on state officials.

Both holdings are consistent with nationwide norms in freedom of information law.  Ownership is sometimes invoked as a useful concept when a state court struggles to discern the difference between, for example, a family photo on the desk of a state employee from the employee's work product.  But as the Massachusetts Court recognized, that analysis breaks down quickly in practice; ownership of records as property is a red herring in access analysis.  The better analysis anchors application of public records law in the laudable statutory purposes of transparency and accountability.  There is no doubt that transparency in law enforcement investigatory records serves the interest of public accountability.

Likewise, the use of the federal law to bind state officials would have been a perversion of the accountability mechanisms in the federal FOIA and Privacy Act, and could be construed even as a violation of the Tenth Amendment.  States have recognized instances when federal laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), arguably count as "other law" exemptions in state freedom of information law, insofar as the laws may preempt state disclosure requirements under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  But binding state officials to federal law by way of the information at issue, rather than an enumerated governmental power, would be a bridge too far.

At the same time, the Court recognized that some of the FBI records, based on their index descriptions, qualified for exemption from disclosure under the state PRL as justifiably confidential law enforcement records, for example, records related to an ongoing investigation, confidential sources, or emergency response strategies.  The Court ordered the withholding of those records and remanded the case to the Superior Court to analyze application of the state exemption to other records.

The case is Rahim v. District Attorney, No. SJC-12884 (Mass. Dec. 31, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David Lowy wrote the unanimous opinion.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Court: Irish officials must justify non-disclosure under FOIA exemption for commercial information

Ireland Supreme Court chamber (Michael Foley CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
In two judgments in late September, the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 2014 exemption for confidential commercial information is not mandatory and that public entities relying on the exemption "must explain why the public interest does not justify release."

In both cases, public entities responding to record requests had been permitted to rely on the prima facie application of the exemption.  That approach fell short of the Irish FOIA's legislative command, the Supreme Court reasoned, because the record requesters were given no information with which to test the validity of the exemption.  The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Federal and state FOIAs in the United States also exempt from disclosure confidential information that private entities supply to government when disclosure would jeopardize the private entity's competitive position.  The exemptions operate also to shield public information from disclosure that would jeopardize the government's own competitive position as an actor in the private marketplace.

The U.S. FOIA does not, and state FOIAs typically do not, require that a public agency independently test confidential-information exemption against the public interest in disclosure, essentially second-guessing private owners' confidentiality designations.  To the contrary, legislative exemptions in some states are mandatory, and not, as U.S. FOIA exemptions are, committed to administrative discretion.  Current federal policy permits the disclosure of some statutorily exempt records, but the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) counsels agencies to engage in "full and deliberate" analysis of competing interests.  As to federal exemption 4, for confidential information, the DOJ has opined that such information "would not ordinarily be the subject of discretionary FOIA disclosure."

University College Cork, 2019 (Michael O'Sheil CC BY-SA 4.0)
However, unlike U.S. FOIA exemption 4 ("trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential," 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4)), the Irish exemption for confidential information is limited by a "public interest override."  According to the Irish law, the exemption does not apply when according to the agency "head concerned, the public interest would, on balance, be better served by granting than by refusing to grant the FOI request."  Public interest overrides favoring disclosure are uncommon in U.S. access-to-information law, except in balancing analyses involving personnel records.

Journalist Gavin Sheridan, 2014 (Markus ›fin‹ Hametner CC BY 2.0)
Decided on September 25, 2020, both cases in Ireland involved journalistic investigations.  In Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 57, journalist, FOI advocate, and founding CEO of Vizlegal, a legal information service provider, Gavin Sheridan (recent profile at The Attic) sought access to a state contract with service wholesaler E-Nasc Éireann Teoranta (eNet) to provide public access to fibre-optic-cable infrastructure.  In University College Cork v. Information Commissioner, [2020] IESC 58, news broadcaster RTÉ sought information about a €100m loan by the European Investment Bank to the National University of Ireland, Cork.  Both court opinions were authored by Justice Marie Baker, herself a U. Cork alumna, with four other justices concurring.

More details and further analysis of the cases are available from Andrew McKeown BL at Irish Legal News (Sept. 28, 2020), and from Bébhinn Bollard, Doug McMahon, and Brendan Slattery at McCann FitzGerald (Oct. 12, 2020).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Photo is 'copy,' court has to explain to city, police in state record access case under Arkansas FOIA

Professor Robert. E. Steinbuch at the University of Arkansas Little Rock reports a startling case under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—startling because a lawsuit never should have been necessary, much less an appeal.  Professor Steinbuch wrote in opinion in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
Attorney Ben Motal visited the Little Rock Police Department headquarters to inspect and copy an accident report under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The police refused to allow Motal to copy the report by taking a photograph using his cell phone. He sued.
In response, the city filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that a citizen must choose to either inspect, copy, or receive a government record—notwithstanding the metaphysical impossibility of this claim. How can you copy a record without at least somewhat inspecting it—with your eyes closed?
Then, the city argued that a photograph is not a "copy." Remarkably, the trial court judge, Mackie Pierce, agreed. He said that "if the Legislature wanted to give you the right to photograph public records, they could have easily used the word 'photograph.' They didn't. They used 'copy' and 'copying.'"
. . . .
Pierce also dismissed the case because the city relented after being sued, and it provided the records directly to Motal without any need to photograph or otherwise copy them. We see this type of legal manipulation all the time, wherein public entities comply with the law only after being sued and then seek to Jedi-mind-trick their way out of litigation by asserting in court that "there's nothing to see here—move along, move along."
The result too often is that only attorneys and those who can afford attorneys have rights, because they can sue. If you're a regular Joe, you don't have any rights, say the city and the trial judge, because they've orchestrated it that there's no precedent to protect you when the city repeats the same bad acts they did to Motal.
Reversing, the Arkansas Court of Appeals, per Judge Kenneth S. Hixson, ruled in favor of Motal.  Now the city claims it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  Professor Steinbuch predicts the city will not succeed, despite a dubiously reasoned dissent by Judge Raymond R. Abramson, who would have ruled the case moot ("these are not the droids we're looking for") and parroted the city's argument.  Judge Hixson was an attorney in private practice before going on the bench.  Judge Abramson was a municipal police court judge and a city attorney.

Steinbuch is right in his reasoning and his prediction.  Shame on the LRPD and the City of Little Rock.  They seem to fundamentally misunderstand that a public record belongs to the public.  They are only its custodians.

The opinion piece is Robert E. Steinbuch, "Photo" Finish, Ark. Democrat-Gazette, May 22, 2020.  With University of Arkansas Professor John J. Watkins, Professor Steinbuch and I are co-authors of the treatise, The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (6th ed. 2017) (excerpt of prior edition at SSRN), which Judge Hixson referenced.

The case is Motal v. City of Little Rock, No. CV-19-344, 2020 Ark. App. 308 (Ark. Ct. App. May 13, 2020), also available from Justia.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

First Amendment right of access to court records is alive and kicking in electronic era

Developments in the First Amendment right of access to court records were on the menu this afternoon for a continuing legal education program from the American Bar Association (ABA).

The First Amendment protects "the freedom of speech, or of the press," and the U.S. Supreme Court in most contexts has rejected the First Amendment as carving out an affirmative access doctrine.  Yet access to court proceedings and records is an exceptional and narrow area of First Amendment law that grew out of criminal defendants' trial rights in the 1970s and 1980s.  (Co-authors and I wrote about the First Amendment and related common law right of access to court records in the early days of electronic court record access policy.)

Lately there has been some litigation pushing to clarify, if not expand, the First Amendment right of access to court records.  Specifically, courts in two federal jurisdictions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, have recognized a right of timely access to newly filed trial court complaints.

The public access problem arose as a corollary to the economic exigency that has constrained contemporary journalism.  When I graduated from journalism school, and triceratops roamed the earth, a good journalist on the court beat checked the dockets at the clerk's office at the end of every day.  But the luxury of one journalist-one beat is long a thing of the past, and now it's harder for the working journalist to keep close tabs on new developments at the courthouse.  In this atmosphere, some state court clerks—most definitely not all, our presenters hastened to clarify—took to withholding newly filed complaints from the public record, whether while pending for "processing," or, one might speculate, to deter coverage of sensitive subject matter long enough for news editors to lose interest.

Courthouse News Service (CNS) is a national media entity reporting on civil litigation in state and federal courts.  I reference CNS often myself, here on the blog and in teaching and research, especially for pretrial court coverage, which is hard to come by in the United States.  CNS pushed back against the delayed release of pleadings, suing successfully in civil rights under the principal federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  CNS had to beat abstention in both jurisdictions, which it did, after a first appeal and remand in the Ninth Circuit.

Relying on the range of federal precedents supporting the principle that "access delayed is access denied," CNS substantially prevailed upon its second go in federal trial court in California.  That case was called Planet, and CNS also won on appeal in, and remand from, the Ninth Circuit in a case called Yamasaki.  Remarkably, the third CNS case, in federal court in Virginia, featured full-on discovery, experts, and motions practice on its way to a four-day bench trial and CNS win.  Questions of fact arose from the clerks' purported necessity for delay while pleadings were "processed."  The court in Virginia declined formally to follow Planet, favoring a tougher articulation of the requisite First Amendment scrutiny.

The take-away from all of the cases is that the First Amendment does attach to newly filed pleadings, under the Press-Enterprise II "experience and logic test"; that timely ("contemporaneous," which doesn't mean instant) access matters from a First Amendment perspective; and that delays in access must survive heightened constitutional scrutiny.

These are the access-to-pleadings cases that the ABA presenters discussed:

  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Planet, 947 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. Jan. 17, 2020) (“Planet III”), aff'g in part & vacating in part Courthouse News Serv. v. Planet, 44 Media L. Rep. 2261, 2016 WL 4157210 (C.D. Cal. May 26, 2016).
  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki, 950 F.3d 640 (9th Cir. Feb. 24, 2020), remanding, for further proceedings consistent with Planet III, Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki, 312 F. Supp. 3d (C.D. Cal. May 9, 2018).
  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Schaefer, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2020 WL 863516 (E.D. Va. Feb. 21) (dkt. no. 102), appeal filed, No. 20-1386 (4th Cir. Apr. 2, 2020).

CLE presenters also discussed record access in the following cases.  I've added links to cases in trial court dispositions.
  • Brown v. Maxwell, 929 F.3d 41 (2d Cir 2019) (remanding for in camera document review in journalist bid to access records in case of sexual abuse victim's allegations against late financier Jeffrey Epstein).
  • In re New York Times, 799 Fed. Appx. 62 (2d Cir. 2020) (affirming in part and vacating in part sealing of two parts of transcript of guilty plea hearing in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution of former Goldman Sachs employee Timothy Leissner).
  • Mirlis v. Greer, 952 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 2020) (secreting video depositions of non-party witnesses, their privacy interests overcoming access presumption, upon access bid by online blogger in case by former student at orthodox Jewish school against the school and principal, alleging the principal sexually molested him while he was a student).
  • Trump v. Deutshce Bank AG, 940 F.3d 146 (2d Cir. 2019) (denying access to taxpayer names as not "judicial documents," upon news organizations' motions to intervene and unseal unredacted letter filed by bank in appeal, in order to learn the redacted names of taxpayers whose income tax returns were in bank's possession, in case of bank resistance to subpoenas in House investigation of President's tax returns).
  • King & Spalding, LLP v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Hum. Servs., No. 1:16-CV-01616, 2020 WL 1695081 (Apr. 7, 2020) (denying seal, but allowing withdrawal, of information about attorney fees filed with motion, rejecting firm's claim of need to protect competitive information).
  • United States v. Avenatti, No. 1:19-CR-00373, 2020 WL 70952 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 6, 2020) (denying motion, filed by Government, defendant, and subpoena target, to seal records related to subpoena duces tecum issued on behalf of defendant on non-party in criminal proceeding).
  • VR Optics, LLC v. Peloton Interactive, Inc., No. 1:16-CV-06392, 2020 WL 1644204, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 2, 2020) (dkt. no. 308, at 17-20) (denying, as moot, motions by both parties to seal trial court records in patent dispute).
  • Motion to Intervene and Unseal, Dawson v. Merck & Co., No. 1:12-cv-01876 (E.D.N.Y. filed Sept. 12, 2019, dkt. no. 121) (decision pending) (seeking unsealing and removal of redactions in court records in settled multi-district product liability litigation over alleged side effects of prescription drug, "Propecia," upon motion of news agency Reuters).

One indicator I found encouraging from an access advocate's perspective is the incidence of court rulings in favor of access even when both parties want to seal.

The ABA program was sponsored by the Forum on Communications Law.  The presenters were:

Monday, April 13, 2020

Trust in government requires access to information in time of crisis

The Governor of my home state, Rhode Island, limited the operation of state freedom of information laws among her executive orders early in the coronavirus crisis, I noted two weeks ago. She was not alone among governors in doing so.  Some limitations make sense.  Paper record access is complicated by closed offices, and open meetings by social distancing.  At the same time, care must be taken to ensure that access to government is not restricted excessively. For excess restriction, we pay a price in transparency and trust in government, and that price can compromise human health no less than the virus itself.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, writes eloquently and timely on the state of public access amid our pandemic emergency in the newly released volume 2, number 1, of The Journal of Civic Information
At a time when prompt access to accurate information could literally mean the difference between life and death, the laws mandating disclosure of information to the public are being relaxed in the name of government efficiency, while those mandating secrecy are being applied rigidly (and at times, inaccurately over-applied). This isn’t just a problem for journalists and researchers. As Harvard University health-law professor I. Glenn Cohen told The New York Times: “Public health depends a lot on public trust. If the public feels as though they are being misled or misinformed their willingness to make sacrifices – in this case social distancing – is reduced.” Perhaps the lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic – and it will be a relief to speak of the pandemic in the past tense – will be a generational recommitment to restore custody of critical health-and-safety information to its rightful public owners.
The article is Frank LoMonte, Casualties of a Pandemic: Truth, Trust and Transparency, 2:1 J. Civic Info. iii (2020), and free for download with the latest edition of the journal.  Also included in the volume are research articles on public record officer perspectives on transparency, by Brett G. Johnson, University of Missouri, and on legislative conflict over the Washington State open records law, by Peggy Watt, Western Washington University, with an editor's note from David Cuillier, University of Arizona.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Boston Globe wins access to booking photos, incident reports involving arrests of police officers

In the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on March 12, the Boston Globe won access to booking photographs and incidents reports related to arrests of police officers under the state open records law.

The case arose from the denial of multiple public record requests, including two following State Police arrests of local law enforcement officers for operating motor vehicles while under the influence in 2012 and 2014.  State police resisted disclosure, claiming the records were not public as part of the state's "criminal record offender information" (CORI) database, which is exempt from disclosure by statute.

The exemption of criminal record information systems is the rule rather than the exception in the United States, in theory, to protect personal privacy.  Sometimes persons are never charged, or even arrested, or are exonerated prior to court proceedings, and public policy disfavors sullying reputation by association with police action.  On the opposite end of the criminal justice process, there is concern that even a person who is convicted of a crime will never escape the reputational impact of police involvement, especially in the age of an internet that never forgets.  Critics of non-disclosure policy claim that secrecy undermines accountability, which is especially important for law enforcement; and treats the public paternalistically, as if people cannot understand the relative significance of different stages of involvement with the police and criminal justice system, including the significance of having done one's time.  This tension of competing policy aims, especially as it plays out in the electronic age, and especially as it relates to visual media, implicates "practical obscurity," a conundrum that has dogged access policy for more than four decades and also marks a flashpoint in the trans-Atlantic privacy debate.

Examining the open records law, even as amended by the Massachusetts legislature while appeal was pending, aiming to bolster the state's position on the privacy-access seesaw, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the records not shielded by the CORI statute's exemption for criminal record information. Employing the rule of narrow construction of access exemptions, the court concluded, "[W]e cannot read exemption (a) so broadly as to shield all investigatory materials created by police from disclosure. We therefore conclude that the booking photographs and incident reports sought here are not absolutely exempt from disclosure as public records under exemption (a) 'by necessary implication' of the CORI act."

Moreover, though police had not argued the point, the court ruled the records not exempt as an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, at least in the particular context of police as arrestees.  The privacy exemption calls for a balance.  The court explained, "On the privacy side of the scale, we generally 'have looked to three factors to assess the weight of the privacy interest at stake: (1) whether disclosure would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities; (2) whether the materials sought contain intimate details of a highly personal nature; and (3) whether the same information is available from other sources'" (citations omitted).  Also, "privacy factors include the risk of adverse collateral consequences to the individual that might arise from the disclosure of this criminal justice information. 'On the other side of the scale, we have said that the public has a recognized interest in knowing whether public servants are carrying out their duties in a law-abiding and efficient manner'" (citation omitted).

When police are themselves accused of crimes, the balance that might otherwise favor the ordinary citizen swings in favor of public accountability, the court reasoned. "There is a substantial public interest in the disclosure of police incident reports regarding alleged offenses by police officers and public officials that do not result in arraignment. And disclosure of the booking photographs will eliminate confusion as to the identity of those arrested where they may have common names that may be shared by others."

The court's conclusions accord with norms in state access law in the United States.  Though criminal information systems on the whole usually are exempt from disclosure, individual incident reports related to arrest usually are not—notwithstanding the fact that an exempt criminal record database may comprise records that are not exempt individually.  (Booking photos, or mug shots, also, traditionally have not been exempt from disclosure as a class of record, though that has been changing in recent years, because of a cottage industry in privacy invasion, and even extortion, that's cropped up online.)  Personal privacy exemptions are sometimes held to protect personal identity ad hoc, within police records as a class, and incident reports without resulting arrest may be exempt from disclosure.  But personal privacy exemptions typically implicate a balance, and courts tend to favor access when public officials are under scrutiny, especially when law enforcement officers are suspected of violating the law.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, No. SJC-12690 (Mar. 12, 2020) (Justia, Suffolk Law).  Chief Justice Gants wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Media didn't totally lose in Boston Globe access case over show cause criminal procedure

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled against The Boston Globe in the Spotlight team's bid for access to the court records of a narrow class of show cause criminal hearings.  The case is a loss for access advocates, but not wholly.  The court did not deviate from established analyses for access to the judicial records.  And the court used its superintendence power to require data collection for public scrutiny of what happens in these shadowy hearings going forward.

I wrote about this case and these hearings on The Savory Tort in May.  This particular class of "show cause" hearing is a peculiar creature of Massachusetts law and practice, in which a court clerk, not a judge, gets a chance to second-guess police and refuse to issue a criminal complaint, ending a case.  On the up side, this is a process barrier that protects would-be criminal defendants from harsh consequences in minor matters that don't warrant the expenditure of judicial resources, also encouraging alternative dispute resolution.  On the down side, critics have suspicions about these proceedings being used to protect the powerful, to show favoritism among attorneys, and, willfully or not, to effect race and other forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system.

The Globe sought access specifically to records of the sub-class of these hearings in which clerks found probable cause, yet refused to issue criminal complaints.  Public data about these hearings show big disparities among courts in the prevalence of these outcomes, which occur about 9,000 per year in the commonwealth, fueling speculation as to clerks' motives and rationales.  Making matters worse, there is inconsistency in how well clerks record and track what happens in the hearings, often leaving a scant record for review later, whether by a court, public oversight authority, or investigative journalist.

Photo by tfxc. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
The Globe argued for access under common law, the First Amendment, and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  In today's ruling, the court rejected access on all three bases.  In doing so, though, the court colored within the lines of existing access doctrine.

Most compelling, first, was the Globe's common law argument: "not without merit," the court conceded.  The court acknowledged that the common law presumption of access to court records is known to attach to three classes of records: criminal cases, search warrants and affidavits after service, and public inquiries.  The court rejected analogy to criminal cases, because the show cause hearing occurs before a criminal case is initiated.  Rather, the proper analogy, the court reasoned, is a grand jury refusal to indict, which is sealed presumptively at common law.  The court also rejected analogy to pre-complaint search warrants, reasoning that the appropriate analogy is to the search warrant denied, or not yet served, when the public interest still weighs in favor of secrecy.

Pressing on the scale in favor of analogy to secret proceedings at common law was the privacy interest of the accused.  Here the broader context of the contemporary internet and technology as a threat to personal privacy overshadowed the court's logic.  The court reasoned that a principal common law rationale for secrecy in grand jury proceedings and in denied search warrants, namely, protection of the reputation of the innocent, is powerfully implicated in today's world, when a public record of a show cause hearing could turn up online.  There it would be accessible to everyone, including landlords and employers, who might discriminate against a person who never suffered a criminal complaint.

For the record, this argument for privacy and reputational integrity pulls at even my skeptical heart strings, as I have advocated for American adoption of the European online erasure concept in precisely this vein, notwithstanding First Amendment objections.  That said, I admit, it's a bit troubling to see this problem of unwarranted discrimination arising in the private misuse of information sneaking in through the back door of common law access and accountability analysis as a justification for government secrets.  Arguably the solution to the misuse of information is to do something about the person who misuses information, rather than redacting the free flow of information itself.  But that's a debate for another day.

Second, the court's First Amendment analysis tracked the common law analysis.  On the up side, the court employed the now long known, if no less opaque and controverted, "experience and logic" test of First Amendment access to the courts.  Building upon the analogy of the show cause hearing to grand jury secrecy, access was bound to fail both prongs of the First Amendment test.  Analogy naturally doomed the experience analysis, because pre-complaint criminal process has never been public.  And the privacy concerns fueled failure of the logic test.  The problem with "experience and logic" always has been that its results are foreordained by how one thinks about the hearing or record to which access is sought. 

Third, the court wrote that it never before has construed the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights more broadly than the First Amendment with regard to judicial access, and it saw no reason to do so today.  That disappoints me mostly just from the broad standpoint of liking creative state judicial construction of state constitutions as an instance of the 50-state-laboratory theory of our federalism.  In an age of paralysis in Washington—think gerrymandering—state constitutional law is a promising way forward.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Faithful to access doctrine, the court pointed out that upon its very same grand jury analogy, it remains possible for an intervening movant, say, an investigative journalist, to seek access to a show cause record on a case by case basis.  This is a lesser known, and for my money under-utilized, access strategy, so it's pleasing to see the court stamp its imprimatur.  Common law access and secrecy are both presumptions, and each may be rebutted.  The court explained, "In considering individual records requests, the clerk-magistrate should balance the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence that might be served by making the requested records public against the risk that disclosure would unfairly result in adverse collateral consequences to the accused."

Transparency may win out, the court advised, in matters of public interest.  "[W]here the accused is a public official, the interests of transparency, accountability, and public confidence are at their apex if the conduct at issue occurred in the performance of the official's professional duties or materially bears on the official's ability to perform those duties honestly or capably."  That's a key check on clerks who might give the politically powerful a break—as long as watchdogs have an inkling to ask.

How will watchdogs know when something is amiss?  Even the court seemed somewhat concerned about the "wide disparities" in dismissed matters in the Globe's data set, e.g., probable cause with no criminal complaint issuing, one year "from a high of 43.9 percent in the Gloucester Division to a low of 0.2 percent in the Chelsea Division."  Though expressly eschewing any conclusion from the numbers, the court observed that "the magnitude of the apparent differences among courts suggests that different clerk's offices might have very different philosophies regarding the adjudication of these hearings."

To help the watchdog, the court exercised its power of superintendence over lower courts to compel electronic recordings of show cause hearings, preserving the record of judicial reconsideration in appropriate cases, and careful compilation of data about the secret hearings, including the race and gender of persons accused, and the names of attorneys in cases of private complainants.  Courts are expected to come into compliance in a year's time and to report anonymized statistics publicly.

Those measures hardly open the door to secret proceedings the way the Globe wanted, and they do nothing about the problem of clerks appointed through political connections playing an outsized role in the criminal charging process.  But the Globe got better than nothing, and maybe the door is cracked open just enough to deter dubious conduct and to squeeze some accountability out through a shaft of sunshine.

The decision against the Globe's petition for declaratory relief came from a unanimous panel of the Supreme Judicial Court, comprising six of the seven justices, and was authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.  The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681 (Mass. Sept. 9, 2019).

Saturday, August 10, 2019

State FOIA critical in practice, not so much in law school, law student observes

Connor Gillen, UMass Law '21 and a thriving alum of my 1L Torts class, was featured in the local Cape Cod Times during his summer internship with the general counsel of the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office.  Connor's a good bloke, "now considering working in the public sector after graduation."  I was intrigued to read, amid his report:
While interning at the Sheriff’s Office I also learned about the Massachusetts Public Record Laws and the Massachusetts Statewide Records Retention Schedule. These are areas that I would not have learned about in my law school classes, and the information I was taught will give me an advantage once I graduate and become a practicing attorney.
He's no doubt right about that.  Somebody ought to write a casebook about multistate access norms, maybe teach a seminar.  Probably wouldn't sell well, though.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Practical obscurity, other privacy arguments deliver blow to media in Mass. FOIA case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decided a state open records case in mid-June that invites lower courts to substantially broaden privacy exemption from access to information. The case is Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC v. Department of Public Health, No. SJC-12622 (Mass. June 17, 2019) (Lexis).

The Boston Globe is seeking access to a database of state birth, marriage, and death records from the Department of Public Health (DPH). In disagreement with state administrative officers enforcing the open records law, DPH refused access in part, citing statutory protections of personal privacy.  The SJC rejected dispositive motions from both sides, electing to clarify the law and remand for a range of further fact finding.

The case resonates with various problems that have become familiar to privacy law over the last few decades. First, can privacy arise in a compilation of records, when the records are not private one by one?  Second, can privacy preclude disclosure of records in government possession because the records are more about individuals than about the government? Third, how can personal privacy in electronic public records account for an individual's hypothetical privacy interests in the future?

First, the compilation problem arises in that these vital records already are available to the public. Members of the public are allowed to go to  DPH's research room during 11 opening hours each week to view vital records in the electronic database. There are limitations, though. A researcher must search for a name, viewing responsive records only one at a time. Printing is not available, though there is no limitation on copying down information.

At issue legally, then, is whether mere compilation can change the public/private disposition of a record. Historically, the answer to this question was no. Norms of public records law as it developed in the 20th century held that a record should be evaluated within its four corners.

However, that position changed at the federal level, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with the landmark case, U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (U.S. 1989). In that early instance of database access, the Supreme Court construed the FOIA contrary to access on various grounds.  The case was an infamous loss for the access NGO Reporters Committee, which filed as amicus on behalf of the Globe in this case.

Among the conclusions of Reporters Committee, the Court embraced the doctrine of practical obscurity: the notion that a record that is hard to find, whether by rifling through paper or by collecting geographically disparate components, may therein preserve a privacy interest against disclosure when compiled electronically with other such records. With its limitations on record access through the research room, DPH means to effect practical obscurity. The SJC was receptive to the argument, and it will remain to the lower court to decide what weight that privacy holds. Practical obscurity has been a thorn in the side of access advocates for the 30 years since Reporters Committee, while it has captivated courts.

Second, the content problem goes to the disputed heart of access law, its purpose. In Reporters Committee and subsequent cases, the federal courts embraced the cramped position that the purpose of access law is to reveal "what government is up to." Thus when records contain personal information, access opponents ground resistance in statutory purpose without even needing to rely on privacy exemptions.

Access advocates have argued powerfully against this position, especially in the states. Simply knowing what information government is collecting about individuals seems an important priority in the digital age. And the limited purpose argument ignores the plain theoretical position that government records are public records simply by virtue of ownership or possession, because ours is a government of the people. 

On this score the SJC was more solicitous of a broad construction. The state law expressly cites the watchdog purpose. Nevertheless, the Court reasoned that the statute more broadly means to further public interests, which may require disclosure even of personally identifying information in public possession. At the same time, the Court observed that public interests may weigh against disclosure, acknowledging personal privacy protection as a public interest. In the instant case, the Court cited only a public interest in record accuracy, as argued by the Globe, to favor disclosure. The balance is left to remand, but the interest of accuracy seems thin relative to the array of privacy arguments deployed by DPH.

That array arises in connection with the third and most contemporary problem, the protection of individuals' hypothetical privacy interests. Here again is a privacy interest that conventional access law would have disregarded. Yet the SJC was solicitous.

This same problem has been much discussed in the internet age in the guise of the right to be forgotten, or right to erasure. If a government entity is obliged to disclose databases upon demand, then it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to withdraw information from the public sphere later. Access absolutists say, so be it. But privacy advocates assert that meritorious processes for correcting or sealing sensitive public records, such as criminal histories or family matters, are undermined by an internet that "never forgets."

Especially with regard to vital records, the SJC spent some ink on the problem of sex changes and the discovery of a person's birth identity. That is a factor rightly weighed into the privacy balance on remand, the Court held. While evincing compassion, the Court's position is sure to rile access advocates. There seems no logical stopping point from the Court's position to the conclusion that all personally identifying information must be protected against disclosure, in case any one person wishes to change identity in the future. That would be a rule ripe for abuse in official hands.

This decision is bad news for access advocates. It invites privacy to the table as a weight co-equal with access, virtually lifting the presumption-of-access thumb from the scale. The government won broad discretion to conceal its activities relative to people.

At the same time, the Court showed itself to be in step with contemporary privacy law. For better and worse, people are looking to government to protect them against abuses of information in the private sector, from identity theft to big data analytics. In the absence of legislation, the courts have been ever more inclined to oblige.

It remains to be seen what price this protection will exact from transparency and accountability of the government itself.