The Sumner County Board of Education violated the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) by denying a citizen's emailed request to inspect the board's public records policy, the Tennessee Court of Appeals recently ruled.
The opinion handed down July 28 by Justices John W. McClarty, Frank G. Clement and W. Neal McBrayer affirmed a November, 2015 ruling by Sumner County Judge Dee David Gay.
Open records advocate Ken Jakes sued the school district in April 2014 when his request to inspect the district's policy on public records was denied because he made his request through email and voicemail rather than in person or by U.S. Postal Service.
The school district had argued that the Tennessee Public Records Act did not specify that an entity had to accept requests via email and that governmental bodies were allowed to craft their own policies with several other school boards and municipalities throughout the state adopting similar policies. It also argued that the board consulted the Office of Open Records Counsel who advised that their policy complied with state law.
Jakes requested that Judge Gay issue a declaratory judgment requiring the board to accept requests made by email, facsimile, telephone or other similar methods. He also asked for attorney fees. Gay denied both of those requests, but ruled that the school system had violated TPRA and ordered the district to enact a new policy. School board members voted unanimously in December 2015 to appeal the judge's ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
"Here, Plaintiff was forced to either make his request by mail or in person. These requirements, considered individually, have been specifically held unlawful," said the appeals court opinion. "Likewise, we hold that these requirements, even when considered together, do not provide the fullest possible access to public records in accordance with the TPRA in its prior form. With these considerations in mind, we uphold the trial court's ruling that the March 21 request was a 'valid public records request for inspection' in accordance with the TPRA and that the BOE erroneously denied the request."
The court also affirmed a ruling by Gay that a subsequent records request made by Jakes was too broad and did not constitute a valid public records request under TPRA.
"We are disappointed that the court decided that the board's former policy did not comply with a 2008 version of Tennessee's public records statute, especially because the Office of Open Records Counsel, which has the legal duty to interpret the act, informed the Board that its policy was lawful and that its response to Mr. Jakes' request was appropriate under the law," the Board of Education said in a written statement. "The Board could not have predicted that a court three years later, would disagree with the Office of Open Records Counsel's advice."
The issue of whether or not email is a valid form of communication for public records requests was resolved in July by the state legislature.
House Bill 58, introduced by 45th district State Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville) amended TPRA by requiring a governmental body that uses email during its regular course of business to also accept record requests via email. The measure received overwhelming support in both the House and Senate.
Rogers said she proposed the bill after reading news reports about the Jakes-Board of Education lawsuit.
The Board of Education voted in June to amend its public records policy in order to comply with the new law that went into effect July 1.
"We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish which was to make records more accessible to people," said Jakes' attorney Kirk Clements. "It's unfortunate that [the school board] spent $250,000 to be told to follow the law."
The school system spent an estimated $250,000 in legal fees on the case, according to invoices obtained by the Hendersonville Standard through open records requests. Clements said he billed Jakes roughly $30,000 for his services.
The School Board doesn't plan to appeal the recent ruling, according to Sumner County Schools Spokesperson Jeremy Johnson.
The Sumner County Board of Education's full statement to the media following the July 28 appeals court ruling:
"We are pleased that the Court of Appeals agreed with the Board of Education on most of the issues that it considered in the lawsuit that Mr. Jakes--not the Board--filed and prosecuted. The Court did not order the Board to change its public-records policy and agreed with the trial court's decision not to impose an injunction. The court held that one of Mr. Jakes' requests was unclear, overly broad, and invalid, and ruled that the Board did not have a duty to sort through various files to respond to unclear requests.
We are likewise grateful that the Court found that the Board's response to Mr. Jakes was professional and conducted in good faith, and that the Board does not have to pay any of Mr. Jakes' legal fees. We are disappointed that the Court decided that the Board's former policy did not comply with a 2008 version of Tennessee's public records statute, especially because the Office of Open Records Counsel, which has the legal duty to interpret the act, informed the Board that its policy was lawful and that its response to Mr. Jakes' request was appropriate under the law. The Board could not have predicted that a court three years later, would disagree with the Office of Open Records Counsel's advice.
The issues involved affected a number of boards of education and other government agencies throughout the State, and the Board is thankful that several organizations also supported its position, including the Tennessee School Boards Association, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools, the Tennessee Municipal League, and the Tennessee Risk Management Trust. The legislature amended the public records statute again in 2017, and the Board adopted a new policy in compliance with the new standard. We look forward to moving ahead with our work, including the beginning of a promising 2017-2018 school year."