A long-running clash between the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund and Jacksonville resident Curtis Lee reached the Florida Supreme Court Tuesday. The eventual ruling could have a major impact on future public-records disputes.
The case began in 2009 when Lee, a frequent critic of the pension fund, was told he would have to pay $326 before he could review documents that were sitting on a table at the pension fund office.
Lee was then told he would have to pay $280 in advance so that a staff member could watch over him while he reviewed records for up to eight hours. Pension fund managers then wanted Lee to pay $27.66 an hour for another employee to make copies of Lee’s public record’s request.
Lee sued, arguing that the pension fund was excessively charging him in an attempt to discourage him from seeing documents that are subject to the state’s Government in the Sunshine Law. Circuit Judge James Daniel agreed that Lee had been overcharged but declined to award him attorney fees, saying that the pension fund didn’t knowingly violate public records laws.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee disagreed and ordered the pension fund to pay legal fees to Lee. The fund responded by appealing to the Florida Supreme Court.
Pension fund attorney Robert Klausner said it was wrong to require the pension fund to reimburse Lee when the trial judge found that the fund didn’t knowingly do anything wrong.
“What the trial judge found was that the violations did not rise to an unlawful refusal,” Klausner said.
The pension fund tried to respond to Lee’s request in good faith, and many documents had privileged information like the addresses of police and firefighters that had to be redacted, he said.
Attorney Robert Dees, who represents Lee, said ruling in favor of the pension fund would hurt people seeking public records because lawyers would be reluctant to pursue cases knowing that they could get stuck with the bill even if wrongdoing is proven.
Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente expressed concern that ruling in Lee’s favor would encourage people to play “gotcha” and seek attorney fees for minor public-records violations that didn’t justify paying the fees. Dees insisted that didn’t apply to the case before them, but justices seemed unconvinced.
Jon Kaney, general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, said the fact the Supreme Court took the case is worrisome. The First Amendment Foundation filed a brief in the case in support of Lee.
There are people who have taken advantage of the public-records law by filing frivolous lawsuits in the past, but the headaches they cause are minor compared to the problems that would occur if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the pension fund, Kaney said.
For two decades it’s been accepted practice that if a lawsuit results in a public-records violation being proven, it leads to legal fees being awarded. It would be a major change if the Supreme Court said fees could only be awarded if it’s proven that the government entity knew it was breaking the law, Kaney said.
It’s almost impossible to prove intent, he added.
After oral arguments occurred, Lee said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Supreme Court would rule in his favor. He also cautioned that if the Supreme Court rules against him, it would “gut the law” and give governmental entities an excuse to not comply with records requests.
A ruling is expected to take months.
Original article here.