Open Government Litigation Fund

Judge orders sheriff’s office to pay media outlets’ attorney fees in public records suit

Publisher Les High reports that The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina, has won its litigation against the Columbus County sheriff, who withheld incident reports for a month for a negative editorial that the paper wrote about him.

America's Newspapers had awarded a $5,000 grant to The News Reporter from its Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in its lawsuit.  The judge who heard the lawsuit awarded attorney’s fees to the newspaper, which is enabling the paper to return the $5,000 grant to America's Newspapers to be used to fight other battles, now that the deadline for the sheriff's office to appeal the ruling has passed.

High said: "Newspapers today face tough choices when it comes to filing lawsuits, but how can you not when the local sheriff doesn’t release incident reports for a month after an unfavorable editorial? The America's Newspapers litigation fund gave us confidence to move forward and would have helped defray what could have been a considerable cost. Fortunately, the judge awarded attorney’s fees and we were able to return the money to the fund."

He added, "Lawsuits can be expensive and time consuming, but we can’t shy away from doing what’s right."

The Open Government Litigation Fund is designed to assist members of America's Newspapers that are engaged in lawsuits supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know. CEO Dean Ridings encouraged members needing assistance from the fund to contact him at dridings@newspapers.org.

Read more about the lawsuit in this article by The News Reporter's public safety reporter, Thomas Sherrill:

Following a judge’s order, Columbus County government paid $32,287.69 Wednesday (April 7) to a Raleigh-based law firm that represented The News Reporter and three other media outlets in a successful public records lawsuit against the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office. Joining The News Reporter in the suit, filed in October 2020, were Tabor-Loris Tribune, WWAY and WECT. 

Judge John W. Smith wrote in his Feb. 8 ruling that the sheriff’s office’s withholding of “open incident reports” starting in September 2020 represented a “substantial failure to comply” with state public records law.

Smith ordered the sheriff’s office to send all incident reports to local media who requested them or who had a continuous request for them over the years, as it had prior to the office’s September 2020 policy change.

“North Carolina does not have an exception to the Public Records Law for draft documents,” Smith’s order states. “The Sheriff’s Office shall release reports that have been finally approved and those that have not yet been approved.”

In his March 2 order awarding attorney fees, Smith said the rates charged by the media outlets’ attorney, Amanda Martin of Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, were “reasonable” and that “determining attorney fees by hourly billing at a reasonable hourly rate is a fair and appropriate method for calculating attorney fees in this type of litigation.”

Smith said he considered the facts before the ruling, including the fact that, prior to the trial, Greene and the CCSO rejected mediation as an alternative form of dispute resolution.  

Further, Smith wrote that since CCSO “did not rely upon legal advice from an attorney” prior to its policy change, it “is not entitled to any other exemption or mitigation authorized by law.”

“These fees should be charged upon the operating expenses of the Sheriff’s Department of Columbus County,” the order states. 

Editor’s Note: Public Safety Reporter Thomas Sherrill, Editor Justin Smith and Publisher Les High were active participants in this case.

Read more from America's Newspapers — when the grant was initially awarded

Statesman receives support from America's Newspapers in open records dispute

America's Newspapers has awarded a $5,000 grant to the Austin American-Statesman (Texas) from its new Open Government Litigation Fund to assist the newspaper in its ongoing public records dispute with the University of Texas-Austin.

The Statesman’s public records lawsuit is part of a nationwide investigative reporting effort by Gannett’s USA TODAY Network into the questionable practice by major intercollegiate athletic programs to recruit and admit athletes expelled for sexual assault by other academic institutions. 

Requests for records to public universities across the country resulted in Gannett obtaining records in some instances and not others, even within the same state.  The Statesman sued The University of Texas at Austin following its refusal to produce the requested expulsion and transfer records and won access in a hearing before the trial court in Austin.  The Statesman is defending its victory in an appeal by the university to the state intermediate court of appeals.  Given the intensity of the university’s opposition to releasing the records requested by the Statesman, the case could eventually end up before the Texas Supreme Court.

The Statesman’s lead counsel in the case against the University of Texas, John Bussian, commented: “The case arose at a time when America’s Newspapers Open Government Litigation Fund had just become operational. And it turned out that this is exactly the kind of cause the fund is designed to help support. The alliance with America’s Newspapers in a case like this is a first, and the hope is that early success here will spur other members of America’s Newspapers to mount legal challenges to government actors blocking public access to records and meetings."

Patrick Dorsey, publisher of the Austin American-Statesman, said: "The Statesman is committed to fighting for the rightful access to public records, especially when such serious consequences are at stake.  We appreciate America's Newspapers adding its support as we defend our victory for access in the court of appeals."

Last fall, when the Statesman filed suit against UT-Austin over the school's refusal to supply records related to students disciplined for sexual misconduct, Statesman Executive Editor John Bridges said federal law makes it clear that universities are free to disclose the information the paper is seeking.

"It's disheartening that the University of Texas, given an opportunity for openness and transparency, chose instead to keep these records from the public."

 

Legal Fund Guidelines

The Open Government Litigation Fund is designed to assist members of America's Newspapers that are engaged in lawsuits  supporting the First Amendment rights of newspapers and the public's right to know.

The Fund is dedicated to providing support for necessary legal action — primarily the initial costs of drafting, filing and serving a lawsuit — to enforce the public’s right to know through access to government records and meetings.

Any member may submit a written request for assistance from the Fund with a state public records or open meetings lawsuit or with a federal Freedom of Information Act-based claim.

All requests are reviewed by a subcommittee of the Legal Affairs and Lobbying Committee, which will make a formal recommendation to the chairman of the committee for action by the Executive Committee of the full board of America’s Newspapers.

A member may make one request in a new case per year.

Funding is limited to $5,000 per lawsuit, including appeals, subject to the Fund’s capacity at the time of the member’s request.

Members receiving funding are obligated to seek recovery of legal expenses in each lawsuit, wherever possible, and to reimburse the Fund if legal expenses are recovered by the requesting member.

Written requests for assistance should be submitted to CEO Dean Ridings at dridings@newspapers.org

For additional information, contact Ridings at (847) 282-9850, ext. 105, or email him at dridings@newspapers.org