Session Date: May 16, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Giles County No. 6496 David L.
an appeal from a dispute litigated under the Tennessee Public
Records Act. Although the trial court concluded that the Town
of Lynnville violated the Act by denying the petitioner's
request for records, the court held that the denial of
records was not willful. Accordingly, the petitioner's
request for attorney's fees was denied. Having reviewed
the record transmitted to us on appeal, we disagree with the
trial court's determination that the denial of records
was not willful and reverse the trial court on this issue. In
light of our conclusion that the denial of records was
willful, we remand the case to the trial court to reconsider
its decision to deny an award of attorney's fees. We also
remand for a determination of Mr. Taylor's costs and
attorney's fees incurred in this appeal.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed in part, Reversed in part and Remanded
B. Goldin, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which
J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., joined, and Brandon O.
Gibson, J., filed a separate concurring opinion.
Dalton and David Hudson, Lewisburg, Tennessee, for the
appellant, Rickey Joe Taylor.
Kristin E. Berexa and Ross V. Smith, Nashville, Tennessee,
for the appellee, Town of Lynnville.
B. GOLDIN, JUDGE
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
present dispute stems from efforts taken by Rickey Joe Taylor
("Mr. Taylor") to access a number of public records
held by the Town of Lynnville (the "Town"). The
public records sought by Mr. Taylor include, among other
things, minutes from certain Town board meetings. As is
relevant to this appeal, three public records requests are at
issue. The first request for records was an oral request by
Mr. Taylor that occurred in December 2015. A written request
for records was subsequently made on January 6, 2016. Then,
on January 20, 2016, Mr. Taylor made another public records
request orally. The specific factual circumstances attendant
to each of these requests will be discussed more fully below,
but it should be noted that the Town did not provide Mr.
Taylor access to the subject records for inspection as a
result of his requests.
result of the Town's failure to permit inspection of the
public records he had requested, Mr. Taylor filed a petition
for access and to show cause in the Giles County Chancery
Court on February 16, 2016. Among other things, his petition
alleged that the City Recorder for the Town, Amanda Gibson
("Ms. Gibson"), had conditioned his inspection of
records on the payment of a $150.00 fee. The petition prayed
that he be allowed to view the requested records without
payment of a fee and also asked for an award of reasonable
costs and attorney's fees pursuant to Tennessee Code
Annotated section 10-7-505(g).
cause hearing was held by the Chancery Court on March 9,
2016, and on June 8, 2016, the Chancery Court entered an
order memorializing its findings of fact and conclusions of
law in the case. In pertinent part, the Chancery Court's
June 8 order concluded that the Town had improperly denied
Mr. Taylor's January 20, 2016 request for records.
Although the Town was thus ordered to produce the requested
records for inspection,  the Chancery Court concluded that
because the denial of records had not been willful, Mr.
Taylor's prayer for attorney's fees should be denied.
This timely appeal then followed.
appeal, Mr. Taylor raises a number of issues with respect to
the trial court's analysis of his various records
requests. In addition to asserting that the trial court erred
in failing to conclude that the Town denied his December 2015
oral request and his January 6, 2016 written request, Mr.
Taylor maintains that the trial court reached the erroneous
conclusion that the Town's actions were not willful. He
asserts that the trial court's denial of attorney's
fees was improper and asks this Court to award him his
reasonable costs and attorney's fees incurred on appeal.
Although the Town maintains that any such relief is without
merit, it separately asserts that the trial court incorrectly
concluded that Mr. Taylor's January 20, 2016 request for
records was denied.
review of a trial court's factual findings is de novo
upon the record, accompanied by a presumption of correctness
unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise.
Northland Ins. Co. v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co.,
916 S.W.2d 924, 926 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995). When an issue
hinges on the credibility of witnesses, the trial court will
not be reversed "unless there is found in the record
clear, concrete, and convincing evidence other than the oral
testimony of witnesses which contradict the trial court's
findings." Galbreath v. Harris, 811 S.W.2d 88,
91 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1990) (citation omitted). Questions of
law, including those pertaining to statutory interpretation,
are reviewed de novo with no presumption of correctness.
In re Angela E., 303 S.W.3d 240, 246 (Tenn. 2010)
public's right to examine governmental records has been
recognized by Tennessee courts for more than a century.
Tennessean v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville, 485
S.W.3d 857, 864 (Tenn. 2016) (citation omitted). In 1957, our
General Assembly codified this public access doctrine by
enacting the Tennessee Public Records Act ("TPRA").
Schneider v. City of Jackson, 226 S.W.3d 332, 339
(Tenn. 2007) (citing Ballard v. Herzke, 924 S.W.2d
652, 661 (Tenn. 1996)). The TPRA "governs the right of
access to records of government agencies in this state,
" Cole v. Campbell, 968 S.W.2d 274, 275 (Tenn.
1998), and it plays "a crucial role in promoting
accountability in government through public oversight of
governmental activities." Memphis Publ'g Co. v.
Cherokee Children & Family Servs., Inc., 87 S.W.3d
67, 74 (Tenn. 2002) (citation omitted).
is a "presumption of openness" under the TPRA and a
"clear legislative mandate favoring disclosure of
governmental records." Schneider, 226 S.W.3d at
340 (citations omitted). Indeed, the statute requires that
"[a]ll state, county and municipal records shall, at all
times during business hours . . . be open for personal
inspection by any citizen of this state." Tenn. Code
Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(A). Moreover, unless the requested
public record is specifically exempt from disclosure, the
records custodian must promptly make it available for
inspection. Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(B).
is not practicable for a record to be promptly available for
inspection, a records custodian is required to do one of the
following within seven business days:
(i) Make the information available to the requestor;
(ii) Deny the request in writing or by completing a records
request response form developed by the office of open records
counsel. The response shall include the basis for the denial;
(iii) Furnish the requestor a completed records request
response form developed by the office of open records counsel
stating the time reasonably necessary to produce the record
Id. Failure to respond to a request in the manner
described above shall constitute a denial, and the person
making the request shall thereafter have a right to bring a
petition for access to obtain judicial review. Tenn. Code
Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(3); Tenn. Code Ann. §
case, there does not appear to be any dispute that Mr. Taylor
is entitled to access the public records that are at the
center of his various public records requests. Instead, the
dispute relates to whether the Town's specific responses
to Mr. Taylor's requests constituted denials under the
TPRA and whether Mr. Taylor is entitled to reasonable costs
and attorney's fees for pursuing his records requests. In
addressing these questions, we will begin by considering the
circumstances of each request made by Mr. Taylor and the
Town's corresponding response.
first records request at issue was made orally to the
Town's mayor, Charles Jett ("Mr. Jett"), in
December 2015. While that much is undisputed by the parties,
we note that the specific timing and nature of Mr.
Taylor's request was subject to conflicting testimony at
the March 9, 2016 hearing. Whereas Mr. Jett testified that he
thought Mr. Taylor had approached him outside of town hall on
a day that the Town's offices were closed, Mr. Taylor
testified that he had approached Mr. Jett inside town hall to
verbally request records. The difference in this testimony,
while seemingly somewhat marginal, is not without great
significance. As previously noted, the TPRA provides that
public records shall be open for personal inspection "at
all times during business hours." Tenn. Code Ann. §
10-7-503(a)(2)(A). The breadth of this legislative mandate
notwithstanding, it is clear that the right of inspection is
available only "during business hours."
Id. Indeed, records custodians are not required to
grant rights of inspection during periods when their
governmental offices are not open for the transaction of
this case, the trial court implicitly accredited Mr.
Jett's testimony with respect to the timing of the
December 2015 request. In fact, in its June 8, 2016 findings
of fact, the trial court stated as follows: "During the
last week of December of 2015, Petitioner approached the
Mayor[.] . . . [Mr. Jett] recalls town hall was closed that
day. Town hall is only open for business on Monday, Wednesday
and Friday from 8:00 to 3:00[.]" Given the trial
court's finding that the December request for inspection
was made on a day when the town hall was closed, the Town was
not required to facilitate an inspection of public records on
that date. Again, under the TPRA, the legislative
mandate is not absolute. Public records are only directed to
be open for personal inspection "during business
hours." Id. The Town was simply not required to
give Mr. Taylor access to records at a time when the Town
offices were closed for business.
2016 written request
second records request was made in writing by Mr. Taylor on
January 6, 2016, when he completed a written public records
request form and submitted it at town hall. Two days later,
Ms. Gibson, the City Recorder for the Town, sent Mr. Taylor a
letter acknowledging his records request. Ms. Gibson's
letter stated that the nonexempt records in the Town's
possession would be available for Mr. Taylor's review on
January 11 or January 13,  but it also advised that there would be
an "upfront charge of $150.00." Although the letter
stated that the "upfront charge" was to "cover
the expense for copies and staff time, " we note that
Mr. Taylor's January 6 request form did not include a
request for copies. Ms. Gibson ultimately acknowledged this
fact at the March 9, 2016 hearing.
the TPRA, a records custodian "may not . . . assess a
charge to view a public record unless otherwise required by
law." Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(7)(A). A
citizen can only be charged in connection with a request for
copies of public records.See Tenn. Code Ann.
§ 10-7-503(a)(7)(C) (noting that a records custodian may
require a requestor to pay costs incurred in producing the
requested material in the manner established by the Office of
Open Records Counsel pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated
section 8-4-604); Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-4-604 (providing
that the Office of Open Records Counsel shall establish a
schedule of reasonable charges that a records custodian may
use to charge a citizen requesting copies of public
records). Thus, despite the purported grant of access to
records afforded by Ms. Gibson's letter, such access was
encumbered by the requirement of the payment of an upfront,
illegal fee. Again, Mr. Taylor's written request did not
request any copies. Inasmuch as charges for the
inspection of public records are generally
prohibited, Mr. Taylor's right of access should not have
been conditioned on the payment of an upfront fee. In our
view, the imposition of an impermissible condition on a
record's availability constitutes a denial of a request
for that record under the TPRA. See Friedmann v. Marshall
Cnty., 471 S.W.3d 427, 435 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015)
(holding that, although the government's response left
the petitioner with the option of acquiring the records in
person, the response was a denial inasmuch as the ...