BATON ROUGE — A man who requested the records regarding a code enforcement case pertaining to his house has been denied attorneys' fees or damages by Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeal, even though he partially prevailed in the lower court.
Plaintiff Eric Lowe filed a public records request in St. Tammany Parish in 2015 seeking the entire file pertaining to code enforcement case CE9532 involving his home at 108 Churchill Downs Drive, including the application for a home office permit. Lowe also asked for all emails, letters, memos and faxes regarding the files, applications, investigations or anything else pertaining to the matter.
The parish responded to Lowe's request the next day, with a letter advising that it had begun the process of locating and making the records available.
Lowe was next informed that 819 pages of records and three videos would be produced, but 51 pages were being withheld. Those pages were “...privileged inter-Parish Government correspondence that included a Parish attorney or attorneys, and/or the personal information of private citizens,” according to the appellate court’s order.
Lowe then wrote a letter to the parish asking that it produce a Privilege Log specifying which documents and/or portions of documents they were withholding due to privilege. The parish replied that they were not required to produce a privilege log.
Lowe filed suit in January 2016 against the parish, including Patricia P. Brister in her official capacity as parish president and the custodian of records for St. Tammany Parish and Sidney Fontenot in his official capacity as director of Planning and Development for St. Tammany Parish Government. His suit included a petition for a writ of mandamus, declaratory judgment, attorney fees, penalties, costs and damages seeking that the parish be forced to produce the privilege log or produce the actual documents for the judge to inspect (known as an “in camera” inspection).
According to the appellate court’s order, “Lowe also requested that, subsequent to his requested production of documents and/or in camera inspection, the trial court issue a declaratory judgment declaring whether the ... documents withheld by the Parish were public records subject to disclosure. The Parish subsequently filed a peremptory exception raising the objection of no cause of action averring that it was not required to create and produce a privilege log.”
A hearing was held on March 9, 2016 and a judgment was issued on April 13, 2016. The parish was ordered to produce the records with any personal information of private citizens redacted. Neither the parish nor Lowe appealed that judgment or filed motions for new trial.
More than six months later, on Oct. 16, 2016, Lowe filed a motion asking for attorney fees, penalties, costs and damages. After a hearing was held, the trial court signed a judgment on Feb. 7, 2017 denying Lowe's request for all but court costs. Lowe appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in denying him attorney fees because he won the case.
The appellate court upheld the ruling by the lower court, noting in its order, “Although the trial court granted the requested mandamus relief and ordered the production of documents, Lowe prevailed only in part as his other demands considered by the court were denied. Accordingly, we cannot say that the trial court's decision to award no discretionary attorney fees was an abuse of its discretion… . We find no abuse of discretion by the trial court in denying Lowe's request for attorney fees.”
The order was issued on Jan. 23 by Judge Martin E. Coady, and was heard before Judges Vanessa Guidry-Whipple, J. Michael McDonald and Wayne Chutz.