NEW ORLEANS – A lawsuit filed by non-profit news service The Lens challenging the City of New Orleans for allegedly wrongfully denying public records requests has been dismissed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court.
Chief Judge Kern A. Reese issued a ruling on June 1 denying The Lens' petition seeking to find the city at fault in habitually failing to follow Louisiana public records laws by allegedly failing to respond to public requests or taking up to two months to respond. At one time The Lens reported that about two-thirds of 50 public records request they filed with the city were not responded to in a timely manner. However, after filing suit most of The Lens’ requests were granted, a fact that was taken into account by the court.
Stating that all the pending records requests of the original lawsuit had been fulfilled, the court denied The Lens' request to mandate the documents' release and additionally denied the plaintiff's requests for attorney's fees and a court ruling declaring the city guilty of habitually violating the law.
Scott L. Sternberg, who serves as legal counsel for The Lens, reacted to the decision by saying that that they respected the judge and his ruling.
“[E]ven though he denied our requests for attorney's fees and costs, it's important to note that by filing this lawsuit, we got almost all of the records we were looking for,” he said.
In his opinion, Judge Reese acknowledged the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents as provided in the Louisiana Constitution.
However, in Reese’s ruling against The Lens, he stated that the public records law of the state is “NOT hard, fast, and definite.” He continued by noting that there were “exceptions” and that appropriate response time for public records requests may vary depending upon the particular details of a request and its simplicity or complexity.
Several possible obstacles noted to having the documents out in three days include privileged information, attorney work product and personal privacy information that is in need of being culled prior to release of the documents.
The court also reiterated the law's guarantee to respond to individuals requesting public records within three days–excluding Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. However, Reese clarified that the mandated response within the three-day window must state whether or not the request is indeed a public document eligible for viewing, but this does not necessarily mean the request must definitely be fulfilled within that period. This allowance may give the City or other institutions more time to fulfill a request if it requires culling of private information or further analysis.
In reference to future issues in the obtaining of public documents, Reese's opinion did warn that “if mandates of access to public documents are abridged in the future, such action will be dealt with accordingly.”
Commenting on the process his clients went through to obtain these records, Sternberg said that “It’s unfortunate that any citizen or organization should have to go to these lengths to get public documents," adding that they were “considering their options regarding an appeal.”
Case no. 2015-4547.