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PLN managing editor appeals TN public records case

TN Coalition for Open Government, Jan. 20, 2015.

Friedmann seeks appeal of public records request case on in-person appearance requirement

Posted on January 19, 2015 by 

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, has filed a request to appeal a Marshall County chancery court ruling last year that ordered release of records he requested, but declined to rule that one of his requests was denied because he would not appear in person to make the request.

Friedmann began his request Feb. 3, 2014, with a letter to the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department requesting disclosures of jail policies concerning inmate mail, inmate grievance policy, inmate medical care policies, whether the jail maintains a formulatory of medications for inmates, a copy of the jail’s phone service contract, a contingency request if the jail is paid a commission on prisoner generated calls and how the funds if any are used by the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff’s department responded by saying he could come to the jail and personally request the records and said the records were available for inspectionMonday through Fridays between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friedmann replied that he would like the records mailed or emailed to him, and offered to pay any costs.

Still, the sheriff’s department insisted he come to the jail for the records. Later Friedmann made a followup request.

At the trial, the Marshall County Sheriff Norman Dalton said he was concerned about confirming that Friedmann was a citizen of Tennessee, which governments in Tennessee can require before releasing public records. Friedmann had sent a copy of his driver’s license, but the address was not a street address. It came out at trial, however, that the sheriff’s department never informed Friedmann that there was concern over proving he was a Tennessee citizen, and never noted that his driver’s license was inadequate for that.

The judge ruled that the sheriff’s office had to release the records, but did not award attorney’s fees, which Friedmann had requested.

“The initial response to Mr. Friedmann was not a denial of his request per se,” Chancellor J.B. Cox said in his memorandum opinion and order. “In fact the response invited Mr. Friedmann to come to the jail to review the records.”

“…It is the renewed requests that cause the Court the most concern. The renewed requests were not acted on by the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department consistent with the statue. No communication occurred after March when the renewed requests were made. Silence prevailed throughout the month of April. This failure to respond is tantamount to a denial of records.”

Friedmann’s request to appeal states three issues:

  • Whether the court erred when it held that requiring a personal appearance prior to disclosing records is not a denial to disclose records under the Tennessee Public Records Act;
  • Whether the court erred when holding that the records custodian’s actions is not considered “willful” when “predicated upon the advice of counsel, even when such a reliance is unreasonable”;
  • Whether the trial court erred in failing to award reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.

In addition, Friedmann has sought and received two advisory opinions from the Office of Open Records Counsel related to these issues. Here are the links:

Personal appearance to make a request for copies or retrieve requested copies

The burden of establishing the requester is a Tennessee Citizen

Attorneys Robert Dalton and Michael Auffinger with Dalton Law Firm in Lewisburg are representing Friedmann.