TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida government agencies that lose lawsuits filed by people seeking access to public records will have to pay plaintiffs' attorney fees, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a Jacksonville-based case.
And it doesn't matter if the agency didn't know it was breaking Florida's public records laws when it denied or limited access to records, the court ruled.
"This is really important," said Barbara Petersen, president of the open government watchdog group First Amendment Foundation. "It's not a penalty. They don't pay damages or anything. They simply have to pay our attorneys' fees if we have to sue them and take them to court for violating our rights."
In this case, the board of trustees that manages the Jacksonville police and fire pension funds will have to pay $75,000 to Curtis Lee's lawyer after losing a case that originated over a $320 dispute. And that doesn't include more than $300,000 the board paid outside lawyers to defend it.
Lee sued after the board said he would have to pay for someone to watch him read public records in its office. A circuit court judge agreed with Lee that the board violated state public records laws, but the judge also said the pension board wasn't required to pay Lee's legal costs because it wasn't an intentional or malicious violation.
An appeals court reversed that decision and the pension board appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed in a 5-2 decision the legal costs have to be paid.
"It's a big victory for media and people who need access to public records," said Lee's lawyer, Robert Dees.
He said it will help people who might not pursue a records claim for fear that they wouldn't be able to recover legal costs. He said it may also make agencies less reluctant to deny records access if they know they'll have to pay legal costs when sued.
"If their agency is going to be liable for fees, then that probably makes them significantly more likely to err on the side of openness, which is how the law is supposed to be interpreted," Dees said.
The executive director of the pension board didn't return an email and phone call seeking comment.