Before McMILLIN, P.j., Herring, And Hinkebein, JJ.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: McMILLIN, P.j.
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/06/96
TRIAL JUDGE: HON. SEBE DALE, JR.
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: FORREST COUNTY CHANCERY COUNTY
¶1. This case comes before the Court on appeal from a judgment entered in the Chancery Court of Forrest County. That judgment ordered the University of Southern Mississippi to deliver to D&S Service Company, L.L.P., a copy of a proposal submitted to the University by Caldwell & Gregory, Inc. for the operation of the coin-operated laundry facilities found in the various residence halls on the campus. Caldwell & Gregory, desiring to maintain the confidentiality of its proposal, has appealed to this Court, claiming that the chancellor erred in finding that the proposal was not exempt from disclosure as an exception to the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983. We conclude that the chancellor applied an incorrect legal standard in ordering the disclosure of the proposal and, therefore, reverse the chancellor's judgment and remand the cause for further proceedings.
¶2. The University, in 1995, issued a request for interested persons to submit proposals for the operation of 24 coin-operated laundry facilities in the various campus residence halls. Both D&S and Caldwell & Gregory, along with one other company, responded by submitting proposals. The University, after evaluating the various aspects of the proposals, awarded the contract to Caldwell & Gregory. D&S, unhappy with the University's decision, filed a formal request with the University to be furnished a copy of Caldwell & Gregory's entire proposal under Mississippi's Public Records Act. In keeping with the terms of the Act, the University notified Caldwell & Gregory of the request and of the University's obligation to comply with the request unless Caldwell & Gregory was able to obtain a court order protecting the proposal from disclosure.
¶3. Caldwell & Gregory, believing that the documents requested were exempt from disclosure under the Act, filed this action and requested a protective order prohibiting the University from furnishing a copy to D&S. The University, as the proprietor of the requested documents, was named as the defendant in the suit. However, because the University was, in actuality, a mere stakeholder in the matter, and because the actual dispute was between Caldwell & Gregory and D&S, it appears that the chancellor permitted D&S to be heard in opposition to Caldwell & Gregory's request, though there is no indication that D&S made a formal entry as a party to the litigation. D&S also did not attempt to appear in this appeal. Rather, it obtained leave from the supreme court to file an amicus curiae brief in opposition to Caldwell & Gregory's argument.
¶4. No evidentiary hearing was conducted before the chancellor. Instead, the chancellor relied solely on an in camera inspection of the bid document itself, submitted, under seal, to the chancellor by the University, and briefs from Caldwell & Gregory and D&S. Based on his review of the bid document, the chancellor concluded that "nothing contained in the submission by [Caldwell & Gregory] to [the University] in response to its request for proposals falls within the exception of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 applying the definition set forth in the Trade Secrets Act . . . ." Relying on that finding, the chancellor ordered disclosure of the proposal document to D&S. It is from that order that Caldwell & Gregory perfected this appeal.
¶5. The Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 governs the extent to which information held by a public body may be accessed by members of the public. There is no legitimate dispute that the University is a public body and that the requested documents, once submitted to the possession of the University, became public records within the definition of such records set out in the Act. Miss. Code Ann. § 25-61-3(a) and (b) (Rev. 1991 & Supp. 1997). As such, Caldwell & Gregory's proposal became public property subject to being inspected and copied by any person-including D&S-under Section 25-61-5 of the Act, unless the information fell within one of the exceptions set out in Section 25-61-9.
¶6. Caldwell & Gregory argued to the chancellor without success that the requested information was, in fact, subject to the first enumerated exception of Section ...