Judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have dismissed a class-action public records racketeering lawsuit that was filed by the town of Gulf Stream, Florida and one of their contractors against five people and several companies for filing too many public records requests.
The town of Gulf Stream and the Wantman Group filed the class-action suit, claiming that the defendants kept filing public records requests as a way to extort monetary settlements and attorneys’ fees from local government departments in a racketeering scheme. The suit was filed using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ( a.k.a RICO ).
According to court records, the defendants have made over 2,000 public records requests and filed numerous lawsuits regarding those requests. The Gulf Stream suit alleges that the defendants made the requests and filed the lawsuits as a way to get monetary settlements.
However, attorneys for the defendants argued that Gulf Stream and the Wantman Group brought the racketeering suit against their clients as a way to intimidate them for exercising their rights to request public records.
Part of the issue involves a Florida state law that allows judges to award attorneys’ fees to people who win lawsuits against government departments for not fulfilling public records requests in a timely manner. Florida’s open records law does not put any limits on the amount of requests that a person or organization can make.
A panel of three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
Although the judge’s 13-page decision acknowledged the likelihood that the plaintiffs were capitalizing on Florida’s open records law to overwhelm local governments with public records requests, they did not think that the plaintiffs’ actions justified the racketeering charges.
The Gulf Stream lawsuit was also seeking to include other local governments in the class action against the defendants.
Earlier this year, a group of local governments in Florida tried unsuccessfully to get state lawmakers to change the public records laws that give judges discretion in awarding attorney fees in public records lawsuits. According to the group, the current law has created an incentive for people to file public records requests in the hope of getting a lawsuit and collecting attorneys’ fees.
The proposed change to Florida’s Sunshine Law was fought by people and groups who support open public records access for citizens and organizations. People and groups opposed to changing the law successfully argued that restricting attorneys’ fees would have a chilling effect on people who are denied access to public records and want to file a public records lawsuit to hold government departments accountable.
This court decision is just the latest in a long list of recent legal setbacks for federal, state and local governments that try to stonewall on public records requests or intimidate people who file them.