THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, August 18, 2015………. The Florida Supreme Court has declined to wade into a dispute about whether a rural North Florida county should have been required to pay attorney fees in a public-records fight that started with an anonymous records request.
The court this week let stand a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that sided with Union County, which is between Gainesville and Jacksonville and is home to roughly 15,000 people. The underlying issues in the lawsuit focused, at least in part, on whether the county adequately responded to a request under the state’s Sunshine Law.
The case started with a records request emailed in October 2013 to the county seeking county employee email addresses. The request was made on behalf of an unidentified company and was sent to a general county email address.
In March 2014, Consumer Rights LLC filed a lawsuit against the county because the public records had not been provided. The county then provided the records, but still faced the possibility of having to pay the firm’s attorney fees.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in February that the county acted in good faith, saying that the anonymous nature of the request “would lead anyone familiar with the perils of email communication to exercise caution, if not to disregard the communication entirely.” That ruling upheld a circuit judge’s decision that the county should not have to pay attorney fees.
“The email from the sender could have contained a virus,” the appeals-court ruling said. “It might have been a computer-generated message sent out from a computer-created email account. The sender might have intended to initiate a series of electronic communications that would have caused the disclosure of exempt materials or created difficulties for the county’s information technology officers.”
But in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, Consumer Rights LLC argued that the appeals-court ruling conflicted with legal precedents aimed at preventing delays in providing access to public records.
“All that CR (Consumer Rights)was required to do to trigger the county’s ministerial duty to acknowledge the request and permit access to the records in a timely fashion was send a custodian at the county a request for records that identified existing public records,” said a brief filed in May. “The county had a duty to promptly acknowledge receipt of the request. The county then had a ministerial duty to produce the records.”
But Union County, in response, contended that the appeals-court ruling did not violate legal precedents and that Consumer Rights was responsible for any delays.
“The request was sent on behalf of an unidentified ‘Florida company’ and by an unnamed agent from an e-mail account bearing the address email@example.com and did not appear to have been sent by a person,” attorneys for the county wrote in a brief.
The Supreme Court, as is common, did not offer reasons Monday for declining to take up the case.