Government agencies and public institutions are learning the hard way that stonewalling on Freedom of Information Act requests for public records can lead to expensive lawsuits and tarnished reputations.
ESPN has filed a $90,000 legal motion against Michigan State University to recover legal expenses and fees that the network racked up during a public records lawsuit with the school.
ESPN filed a Freedom of Information Act request with MSU in September 2014, requesting incident reports on 301 of the university’s athletes. MSU answered ESPN’s public records request by sending the network copies of the incident reports, but all of the names for suspects, witnesses and victims had been redacted by the university.
ESPN sued the university in Ingham County Circuit Court and the judge ruled that MSU had to provide the names of all athletes that were listed in the incident reports as suspects. However, the judge did not make the university release the names of witnesses and victims to ESPN. The university appealed the circuit court judge’s decision to Michigan’s court of appeals. The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision. MSU then appealed the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, but the state’s high court declined to hear their appeal.
According to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act law, judges are allowed to use their discretion to award all or part of attorney’s fees, court costs and other expenses to the prevailing party in FOIA lawsuits.
ESPN claims that their legal team worked for more than 250 hours on this lawsuit and billed hourly rates from $280.00 – $520.00 for lawyers and $230.00 for paralegals. They also submitted an affidavit with their motion from a third party attorney who stated that these rates are reasonable.
The lawyers for ESPN argue that since the courts granted them the public records that they requested, they are entitled to the legal fees to cover the expenses that they incurred from fighting the university to obtain these records. However, MSU’s lawyers say that the most ESPN deserves is a third of their expenses, since the university was only required to provide the names of student suspects and not the names of witnesses or victims.
In a response to ESPN’s motion, MSU’s legal team stated that ESPN was not granted a total win by the courts in their public records lawsuit. They further stated that since ESPN was not granted their complete request, the court does not have to grant them any costs or fees whatsoever.
A court hearing regarding ESPN’s motion has been set for the end of February.