Massachusetts Overhauls Public Records Law To Increase Access And Enforcement, Reduce Delays And Fees.

Significant changes to the state’s public records laws went into effect on January 1, 2017. The changes, which were passed by the Legislature in June 2016, clarify and elaborate upon the rights and obligations of the public entities in control of public records and the individuals and organizations seeking access to them. In many ways, the laws strengthen the power of citizens to gain access to public records in part by increasing the punishments for public entities that ignore public records requests or unreasonably delay in responding to them. In response to complaints that public entities have been gouging the public in assessing unreasonably high fees for producing documents, the new law sets strict limits on fees and requires the waiver of fees where the public entity did not follow the time limits or otherwise violated the law. The law moves the enforcement provisions from the original public records provision, G.L. c. 66, § 10, into a much expanded new section, G.L. c. 66, § 10A. Section 10A sets out in detail the legal standards and procedures for members of the public who have not been given the public records they requested, or only obtained the documents after long delays. Section 10A strengthens the role of the Supervisor of Public Records (who is located in the Secretary of State’s office) and the Attorney General in enforcing the law. It also permits the award of attorney’s fees and punitive damages in certain cases. The amended law also requires the holder of public records to communicate with the requester in writing to explain claims of exemption, the amount of fees or the reason for any delay in providing the documents.

The statute requires each public entity to assign a public records access officer who will keep track of all requests for records and oversee the responses to those requests as well as compile a detailed annual report for the Supervisor of Public Records. The statute states that electronic delivery of documents is preferred where feasible. It allows the public entity to withhold documents where: (1) the request is one of many by the same requester and is designed only to harass and intimidate and has no public purpose (a determination ultimately made by the Supervisor of Public Records) or (2) the requester has failed to pay the fees for prior requested documents. The statute also distinguishes between public records requests made for purposes of informing the public and those made with a commmercial or profit-making reason. While most of the amendments strengthen access to public records, there are also a few additions to the list of exempt documents, including those containing cyber security information and also the personal e-mail addresses of certain public employees.

Specific changes include the following:

  1. New exemption: records relating to cyber security
  2. New exemption: personal e-mail addresses of employees of the judicial branch and unelected employees of the Commonwealth, its agencies or its political subdivisions, or their family members.
  3. Establishes a Public Records Assistance Fund, funded by punitive damages awards and other sources, administered by the office of information technology, to provide grants to municipalities to “foster best practices for increasing access to public records and facilitating compliance” with the law.
  4. Requires the Supervisor of Records to create and distribute forms, guidelines and reference materials to aid the public in getting access to public records.
  5. Requires state agencies and muncipalities to designate a records access officer or officers, who are responsible for assisting the public in obtaining documents.
  6. Establishes that providing the requested documents by electronic means is preferred, unless the record is not available in electronic form or the requester does not have to ability to receive the documents in that form.
  7. Any public records request must reasonably describe the public record sought.
  8. The public entity must respond within 10 business days with either the documents requested or a detailed explanation for the delay or exemption; if there is no response within 10 days, then the public entity cannot charge a fee for the documents.
  9. Limited extensions of time of five additional days for the Commonwealth and 15 additional days for municipalities are permitted. For good cause, the Supervisor of Public Records may grant an additional, one-time-only 20-day extension to the Commonwealth or 30 business days for a municipality. The requester can agree to an extension of any length.
  10. The public entity must provide any non-exempt documents that are within its possession, custody or control.
  11. If a fee is permitted and the public entity requests a reasonable fee, the public entity can refuse to provide the documents until it receives the fee.
  12. In a major change from the earlier fee provisions, the Commonwealth and its agencies cannot charge a fee for the first four hours of work in responding to a request. For muncipalities with a population of 20,000 or more, the free period is two hours. Smaller municipalities may charge for all the time required to process the request. After the applicable free period, the public entity can charge up to $25 an hour for time spent on the request (more if approved by the Supervisor of Public Records after a detailed showing of need). The charge for black and white copies is limited to five cents per page.
  13. Enforcement: Whereas under the prior law, the requester could only ask the Supervisor of Public Records to determine whether the requested record was public, the statute now gives the Supervisor the power to make “a determination whether a violation [of the public records law] has occurred.”
  14. If the Supervisor of Public Records finds a violation of the law, it may notify the Attorney General, who may take any steps to ensure compliance, including filing a civil action.
  15. No matter what steps the Supervisor of Public Records or Attorney General do or do not take, the requester has the right to file a civil action to enforce the law in the Superior Court. The enforcement provision gives the court the power to issue injunctive relief and specifically incorporates the presumption that every record sought is public, which places the burden on the public entity to prove that it has complied with the law.
  16. If the requester files a civil action and subsequently prevails (and prevailing includes obtain the requested documents, even without a court order), there is a presumption in favor of an award of attorney’s fees and costs.
  17. To overcome the presumption of attorney’s fees, the agency or municipality must prove it comes within a specific exemption (i.e., the Supervisor of Public Records found there was no violation of the law; the entity reasonably relied on a published court or attorney general opinion; the intent of the request was to harass or intimidate, or the request was for commercial, not public purposes).
  18. If the Superior Court awards attorney’s fees, then it must order the public entity to waive any fees. If the Superior Court does not award attorney’s fees, it still may order the entity to waive fees.
  19. If the requester obtains a court judgment in his or her favor and has shown that the public entity did not act in good faith, then the court may assess punitive damages against the Commonwealth or municipality of between $1000 and $5000, with the money to be placed in the Public Records Assistance Fund.

Notes for employees and unions:

  1. Because of the fee provisions of the public records law, we advise our public employee union clients to request records that are relevant and necessary to their role as exclusive bargaining agents under G.L. c. 150E, § 6. The obligation to provide such information is an important aspect of a public employer’s obligation to bargain in good faith with its employee unions. If the parties have a past practice of providing documents without charge, then charging a fee for documents requested pursuant to Chapter 150E would be a unilateral change in working conditions and a basis for filing an unfair labor practice charge. A public records request would be necessary when seeking records in the custody of public entities other than the public employer with whom the union has a bargaining relationship.
  2. Personnel records are exempt from disclosure as public records, but an individual employee has a right to see his or her personnel record under G.L. c. 149, § 52C. Employee personnel records and internal investigation records may also be available to unions pursuant to G.L. c. 150E, § 6, although redaction may be required in some cases.
  3. Criminal defendants may have a constitutional right to certain portions of otherwise exempt records, such as personnel files of arresting police officers and internal affairs investigations of those officers, under Commonwealth v. Wanis, 426 Mass. 639 (1998), upon a specific showing that the records are likely to contain exculpatory information.
  4. The exemptions to the Public Records Law only determine what documents public entities are permitted to withhold from public records requesters. It arguably does not prohibit public entities from disclosing exempt documents. Other laws and statutes, including laws creating certain privileges and the law prohibiting invasion of privacy, may be invoked to prevent a public entity from disclosing a document that is not a public record within the meaning of the law.
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