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

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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

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