KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri city clerk must pay a $4,000 fine and nearly 10 times that amount in attorney fees for refusing to honor a woman’s public records request, a state appeals court ruled in a decision that could have important implications for how such requests are handled going forward.
The Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City ruled Tuesday that Teresa Henry, the clerk in the Kansas City suburb of Raytown, must pay the civil penalty and $38,500 in attorney fees to Paula Wyrick, whose mother died at an intersection in Raytown on New Year’s Eve 2016, KCUR reported.
Wyrick had sent a notice that she might sue the city. Henry refused to release traffic safety records to her, citing an exception in the state’s Sunshine Law for records that are “related to” litigation.
The appeals court found that the threat of litigation was not sufficient reason to exempt public records from disclosure.
“Henry’s argument would permit public governmental bodies to rely on the litigation exception ‘as a basis for closing virtually any record’ in a manner that would ‘be inconsistent with the requirement that exceptions to the (Sunshine Law) be strictly construed,’” the court ruled, citing a 1997 ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Henry’s attorney, Wesley Carrillo, was out of the office Wednesday and didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
“This decision is a godsend,” said Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City media attorney who was not involved in the case. “I can’t tell you how many times I get an objection that a document is closed because it relates to a lawsuit or relates to an investigation.”
Wyrick’s mother, Cecile Leggio, was killed when her car was struck by another as she was turning at an intersection in Raytown. Wyrick requested records about the intersection’s safety and design, which she contended had limited visibility.
Wyrick eventually filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, claiming it should have known the intersection was dangerous. Earlier this year, the city settled with Wyrick for $87,500 and agreed to make the intersection safer.
Kansas City attorney Chris Dandurand, who represented Wyrick, said the appeals court’s decision provides “some clarity and some guidance for government entities facing these Sunshine requests, particularly with regard to the litigation exception.”