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Taylor v. Town of Lynnville

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

July 13, 2017

RICKEY JOE TAYLOR
v.
TOWN OF LYNNVILLE

          Session Date: May 16, 2017

         Appeal from the Chancery Court for Giles County No. 6496 David L. Allen, Judge

         This is 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.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in part, Reversed in part and Remanded

          Arnold 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.

          Robert 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.

          OPINION

          ARNOLD B. GOLDIN, JUDGE

         BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The 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.

         As a 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.[1] 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).

         A show 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, [2] 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.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         On 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Our 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) (citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         The 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).

         There 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).

          If it 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; or
(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 or information.

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. § 10-7-505(a).

         In this 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.

         December 2015 request

         The 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 business.

          In 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.[3] 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.

         January 2016 written request

         The 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, [4] 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.

         Under 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.[5]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 ...


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