by the Florida Times-Union’s Denise Smith Amos
February 13, 2017
An attorney representing a teacher-blogger who has criticized Duval County Public Schools leadership filed a lawsuit Monday claiming the district is withholding public documents he requested last November and paid for last month.
The attorney also is requesting that the county’s General Counsel’s Office hire an outside lawyer to conduct an independent investigation into the handling of this case, including questioning School Board members, district leaders and people in the General Counsel’s Office.
The lawyer behind these requests is Ryan J. Andrews, a Tallahassee attorney who represents Christopher Guerrieri, a longtime Duval teacher who last year got into trouble for a blog item he wrote criticizing School Board member Cheryl Grymes.
Guerrieri had written that Grymes voted for the district to spend money on an after-school program that Guerrieri incorrectly said enriched the coffers of Grymes’ and her husband’s employer, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida. Grymes told Guerrieri his blog was inaccurate — Big Brothers Big Sisters does not provide such after-school services — and Guerrieri corrected his blog.
Nevertheless, in September an attorney in the county’s General Counsel’s Office wrote a “cease and desist” letter to Guerrieri, threatening him with professional sanctions and a libel lawsuit if he didn’t remove the blog item. The district also investigated Guerrieri and discussed a week’s suspension without pay but did not impose that punishment.
Guerrieri, for his part, filed a grievance against the district through the teachers union. And his personal attorney, Andrews, last month sent a letter threatening a federal lawsuit if the district didn’t pay Guerrieri $300,000 and if board member Scott Shine did not apologize for negative comments he made about Guerrieri.
Andrews’ lawsuit Monday seeks a state judge to compel the district to produce the public records which he began requesting in November. He has received some records, including a history of Shine’s internet searches from Aug. 23 to Nov. 24, 2016, which was 5,541 pages.
But when he requested all documents, emails and text messages to and from School Board members pertaining to Guerrieri in a seven-month period, he received only one text message. The district estimated it would take an employee 12 hours to go through some 1,900 pages of emails and redact sensitive information about students.
Andrews agreed to that and paid $340 on Jan. 25, he said.
He said in his lawsuit he believes the General Counsel’s Office is refusing to provide the records until multiple people in the district and that office review the redacted emails.
“Such a delay is unreasonable and violates Florida Statutes,” he said.
But Duval officials say they have been responsive to Andrews’ requests. Mark Sherwood, district spokesman, said Andrews’ requests consist of 16 different items, and the district responded to 11 of them.
But, he added, Andrews’ original request for emails and communications about Guerrieri was wide-ranging and costly, he said, so Andrews was allowed to modify his request, which delayed the process.
He said it is reasonable to take more than 13 business days to inspect 1,900 pages of emails and documents.
“Only a judge can make a determination if the School Board is being reasonable,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for open meetings and records in government.
She said that if the district told Andrews it would 12 hours to redact the records, he should have been apprised of any further delays.
A judge will likely conduct a hearing and decide whether to throw out Andrews’ case or compel the district to provide the records, she said, and either side could appeal.
Ultimately, if a government agency such as Duval County Public Schools is found to have violated Florida’s Sunshine laws, a judge could impose fines and the district by law would have to pay attorney’s fees, she said. [READ MORE]