Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

N.C. Court of Appeals Allows Charlotte To Withhold Documents - Were They Prepared For Reasonably Anticipated Litigation Or For Speculative Litigation?

by Gary L. Beaver

On March 16, 2010, in Wallace Farm, Inc. v. City of Charlotte, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the Mecklenburg County Superior Court's order preventing the plaintiff from inspecting certain public records held by the City of Charlotte. The City had produced over 21,000 pages of documents but withheld about 225 documents consisting of about 500 pages on grounds that they were protected from discovery because they were attorney work product materials prepared in reasonable anticipation of litigation. The lower court conducted an in camera review and agreed with the City.

Charlotte zoning inspectors had used an administrative warrant to search the plaintiff farm after complaints were made of odor from the farm's composting facility and allegations that the farm had grown beyond limits set in 1999 zoning regulations. The farm owners requested all public records from 1998 to 2008 referring to the farm. The City said it would comply but the plaintiff impatiently filed the lawsuit to compel production of the public records. The City asserted in a letter that the documents were prepared in anticipation of a legal proceeding that had yet to commence that being if the City was to take action against the farm pursuant to the complaints, the litigation that was reasonably anticipated to follow. At a hearing, the City added that the materials related to the City's research and consideration of legal strategies related to possible zoning enforcement. Despite the fact that the Public Records Act (in Chapter 132 of the NC General Statutes) provides for liberal access to public records and exceptions and exemptions to the Public Records Act must be construed narrowly, the appellate court, after its own in camera review, agreed with the City withholding the documents using an abuse of discretion standard.

These kinds of cases are difficult to evaluate because the courts necessarily cannot provide much detail about what is in the documents reviewed in camera. One would think that, in light of the Public Records Act's bias toward disclosure, a public agency would have to make stronger arguments than were presented here. For example, one does not see this type of leeway given by the courts to insurance companies withholding documents in reasonable anticipation of litigation that has much greater likelihood of occurring and where the Public Records Act does not provide a bias favoring disclosure. Why treat a public agency's work product claims with greater deference than a private insurer? However, without knowing what was in the documents, one cannot know whether the court's decision here was sound. Regardless, this case is likely to be cited by every public agency in NC that withholds a document based on work product claims further driving up the cost for private citizens to obtain public information.

No comments:

Post a Comment