June 21, 2016 – The News Service of Florida
by Jim Saunders
A federal appeals court Tuesday rejected a class-action lawsuit filed by a Palm Beach County town that alleges it has been inundated with public-records requests as part of scheme to generate attorneys’ fees and legal settlements.
The town of Gulf Stream and a contractor, Wantman Group, Inc., contended that defendants in the case were involved in racketeering by using Florida’s public-records law to “extort” money from local governments, according to court documents. The issue is rooted in part of the law that allows people to collect attorneys’ fees if they successfully sue government agencies for failing to properly provide public records.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appeared to express sympathy Tuesday for the small Palm Beach County town but upheld a lower court judge’s decision dismissing the case, which was brought under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO.
“The allegations in the plaintiffs’ complaint paint a frustrating picture,” said the 13-page opinion, written by appeals-court Judge Charles Wilson and joined by judges Robin Rosenbaum and Jill Pryor. “Accepting those allegations as true, the defendants have engaged in a concerted effort to capitalize on the relatively unfettered access to public records Florida has granted its citizens by bombarding small towns and municipalities with public records requests to which they cannot respond adequately. As distasteful as this conduct may be, the allegations do not support a RICO claim under our precedent.”
The ruling came after a debate during this year’s legislative session about a proposal to give judges discretion in deciding whether to award attorneys’ fees in public-records case. The Florida League of Cities and local communities, including Gulf Stream, pushed for the change because of what they argued was a “cottage industry” of people filing public-records lawsuits to try to collect attorneys’ fees.
But the proposed change met with fierce opposition from open-government advocates, who said it would weaken the state’s Sunshine Law because people would not be willing to take the financial risk of filing public-records lawsuits if they are not assured of recouping legal fees when they win. The proposed change ultimately failed to pass.
Gulf Stream and the Wantman Group filed the class-action lawsuit last year and sought to include other government agencies. Defendants in the case were Martin O’Boyle, William F. Ring, Christopher O’Hare, Jonathan R. O’Boyle, Denise DeMartini, and associated companies, according to court documents. The Wantman Group was a party because of a dispute about a public-records request it received as a government contractor.
The town alleged that the defendants had submitted more than 2,000 public-records requests and filed lawsuits over the requests, according to documents filed in the appeal. It also alleged that the requests and lawsuits were used as a way to spur settlements.
But in a brief filed in November, attorneys for several of the defendants said Gulf Stream and the contractor had filed the racketeering case “to create a collateral attack on the records requestors for exercising their lawful rights.”
“The records requestors have an absolute right to make public records requests and lawsuits,” the brief said. “Their motive for requesting those documents is irrelevant and cannot constitute extortion. … The public records act places no limitation on how many requests may be made. This lawsuit impermissibly seeks to limit the records requestors’ exercise of the rights granted to the records requestors by the Florida Legislature and not stop some other unlawful acts.” [READ MORE]