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Mississippi Department of Wildlife v. Mississippi Wildlife Enforcement Officers' Association Inc.

February 04, 1999

MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE, FISHERIES AND PARKS AND DR. SAM POLLES, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE, FISHERIES AND PARKS
v.
MISSISSIPPI WILDLIFE ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS' ASSOCIATION, INC.



Before Pittman, P.j., Roberts And Smith, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roberts, Justice

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/16/97

TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM HALE SINGLETARY

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CHANCERY COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - STATE BOARDS AND AGENCIES

DISPOSITION: AFFIRMED IN PART; REVERSED AND RENDERED IN PART - 02/04/99

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶1. This matter is an appeal of a denial of request made under the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 (hereinafter "the Act"), Miss. Code Ann. §§ 25-61-1, et seq. (Rev. 1991 & Supp. 1998), by the Mississippi Wildlife Enforcement Officer Association, Inc. (hereinafter "Association") to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (hereinafter "Department") for all information and/or records pertaining to the accrued compensation time of the Department's employees. On February 25, 1997, the Association initiated this case by filing a Complaint in the Hinds County Chancery Court. On March 12, 1997, an Amended Complaint was filed adding Dr. Sam Polles (hereinafter "Polles") in his official capacity as the Executive Director of the Department, due to his action taken in that capacity. The Department filed a joint answer to the Amended Complaint on March 28, 1997. On May 22, 1997, the Association filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, asserting that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The next day the Department filed its Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment.

¶2. On July 9, 1997, the chancery court entered its Opinion granting the Association's Motion and ordering that "[a]ll relief requested in the plaintiff's Amended Complaint is hereby granted, including its request that the defendants be assessed the statutory fine of $100.00 for their failure to comply with the act and their bad faith actions and conduct through the course of such noncompliance."

¶3. On July 16, 1997, the Association filed its formal Petition for Approval of Award of Attorney's Fees and Expenses, presenting the chancery court with evidence as to the amount of attorney's fees and other expenses incurred by it in the appeal of the Department's improper denial of the Association's request. On July 29, 1997, the Department filed a Response in Opposition to Plaintiff's Petition for Approval of Award of Attorney's Fees and Expenses and Motion to Reconsider Assessment of Civil Penalty, asserting (1) that it was improper for the chancery court to award attorney's fees and expenses in this matter, and (2) that the amount of such attorney's fees proffered by the Association was "patently unreasonable." Additionally, the Department contended that the assessment by the court of the statutory penalty of $100.00 was unfair to it. On August 4, 1997, the chancery court entered its Order Denying Motion to Reconsider which specifically held that the only issue which remained to be considered was "the reasonableness of the attorney's fee requested" and proceeded to establish a specific procedure for this issue to be taken up. On August 12, 1997, the Department filed its Objections to Plaintiff's Request for Attorney's Fees and Expenses, and a hearing was held on these objections on October 6, 1997.

¶4. On October 17, 1997, the chancery court entered a Final Judgment in favor of the Association. The court ordered the Department (1) to produce to the Association within 10 days of entry of the Final Judgment a complete list of all employees of the Department, in alphabetical order, last name first, setting forth their accumulated compensatory time ("comp time") as of July 1, 1996; (2) to identify any and all records containing information related to the requested information and provide information as to any and all such records destroyed by it and/or tampered by it during the period from June 1, 1996 to the present; (3) to pay the statutory fine of $100.00 due to its failure to comply with the Act and its bad faith actions and conduct throughout the course of this matter; and (4) to pay to the Association its expenses, including attorney's fees, in the total amount of $11,138.50 as provided by the Act and all costs in this matter as provided by Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 54(d). It is from this Final Judgment that the Department appeals and raises the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN RULING THAT EMPLOYMENT RECORDS MAINTAINED BY THE DEPARTMENT REFLECTING THE ACCRUED COMPENSATION TIME OF ITS EMPLOYEES ARE SUBJECT TO DISCLOSURE UNDER THE MISSISSIPPI PUBLIC RECORDS ACT?

II. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN FAILING TO CONSIDER THAT THE DEPARTMENT COMPLIED WITH THE ASSOCIATION'S RECORDS REQUEST IN A REASONABLE MANNER WHICH SATISFIED ANY OBLIGATION IMPOSED BY THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT TO DISCLOSE THE INFORMATION SOUGHT BY THE ASSOCIATION?

III. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN ASSESSING A $100.00 CIVIL PENALTY AND THE ASSOCIATION'S EXPENSES AGAINST THE DEPARTMENT BASED ON A FINDING THAT THE DEPARTMENT WILLFULLY AND KNOWINGLY DENIED THE ASSOCIATION'S PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST?

IV. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN RULING THAT THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT AUTHORIZES AN AWARD OF ATTORNEY'S FEES AS PART OF THE ASSOCIATION'S EXPENSES IN PURSUING THIS PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST?

V. WHETHER THE AMOUNT OF EXPENSES AWARDED BY THE CHANCELLOR TO THE ASSOCIATION IS REASONABLE?

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

¶5. On July 22, 1996, the Association's legal counsel, Rex D. Harvey (hereinafter "Harvey"), made a request under the provisions of the Act for "a list of all employees of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in alphabetical order, last name first, setting forth their accumulated 'comp time' as of July 1, 1996." In response to this letter, the Department provided a computer generated listing of accrued comp time for the 391 employees of the Wildlife & Fisheries Division of the Department as of August 1, 1996. However, the Department did not provide information for all 967 total Department employees nor did it provide information as of July 1, 1996. For this reason, on August 27, 1996, Harvey sent a second request for the information to the Department asking for a complete list of all Department employees. On September 6, 1996, Polles replied to this second request by providing an alphabetized list of the names of all employees of the Department, but asserting for the first time that the comp time information requested by the Association was exempt from disclosure:

However, it is our understanding that Pursuant [sic] to Section 25-1-100 of the Mississippi Code of 1972, as amended, personnel records, including accumulated annual and sick leave information as well as accumulated "comp time", are exempt from the provisions of the Mississippi Public Records Act except as the requests of the individual employee or with his or her prior written consent. Therefore, we believe we can release such information only to the individual employee when requested or with his or her prior written consent.

The Department asserts that the reason that it suddenly adopted this position with regard to the Association's request after it supplied the information as to some employees was that upon further investigation of the propriety of the Association's request, the Department became concerned that the information and records being sought were confidential employee information.

¶6. On October 2, 1996, Harvey asked Polles to reconsider this denial, pointing out to him that the Department had already supplied the comp time information as to 391 employees. As for the asserted basis for the denial, Harvey provided Polles with a Mississippi Attorney General's Opinion construing that such compensatory time information rested in the same category as did information concerning a public employee's salary and thus, was clearly subject to disclosure under the Act. It was specifically noted that at no point did the Association request the underlying records concerning the reasons for the accumulation of any comp time nor any underlying personnel files pertaining to particular employees. On October 21, 1996, Polles issued another denial of the request, again citing § 25-1-100.

¶7. Following this, a dialog was attempted between the Association and the Department through the Attorney General's Office. Following these Discussions, the Department requested an extension of time to reconsider the matter, which was granted by the Association. However, when it heard nothing further from the Department, the Association notified it on January 30, 1997, that it had until Monday, February 3, 1997 to respond or the Association would be forced to proceed with a civil action to obtain the public information. Having no further response from the Department by the deadline, the Association filed its complaint on February 25, 1997.

¶8. After the filing of this civil action, on April 24, 1997, the Department provided the Association a list of 947 Department employees' comp time for the period ending June 30, 1996. However, the names of the individual employees were not furnished with this list. The Department asserts that the reason it submitted this list over one year after the initial request was made of it and after suit was filed was that it attempted to comply with the Association's request in a manner which reasonably accommodated the competing interests at stake in this dispute. Thus, the Department has provided to the Association: (1) a computer generated list of 391 named Department employees with their comp time provided as of August 1, 1996; (2) a computer generated list of the names of all 947 Department employees but without any information as to their comp time; and (3) a computer generated list of the comp time for 947 unnamed Department employees.

¶9. The Department asserts that this dispute centers on the identity of those employees in the Parks division of the Department who have accumulated comp time. However, the Association asserts that the dispute centers upon whether, under the Act, the Association is entitled to the information which it sought in its original public records request.

DISCUSSION OF THE ISSUES

Standard of Review

¶10. Our appellate standard for reviewing the grant or denial of summary judgment is the same standard as that of the trial court under Rule 56(c) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. This Court employs a de novo standard of review of a lower court's grant or denial of summary judgment and examines all the evidentiary matters before it--admissions in pleadings, answers to interrogatories, depositions, affidavits, etc. The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made. If, in this view, there is no genuine issue of material fact and, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment should forthwith be entered in his favor. Otherwise, the motion should be denied. Issues of fact sufficient to require denial of a motion for summary judgment obviously are present where one party swears to one version of the matter in issue and another says the opposite. In addition, the burden of demonstrating that no genuine issue of fact exists is on the moving party. That is, the non-movant would be given the benefit of the doubt. McCullough v. Cook, 679 So. 2d 627, 630 (Miss.1996) (quoting Mantachie Natural Gas Dist. v. Mississippi Valley Gas Co., 594 So. 2d 1170, 1172 (Miss.1992); Clark v. Moore Mem'l United Methodist Church, 538 So. 2d 760, 762 (Miss.1989)).

I. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN RULING THAT EMPLOYMENT RECORDS MAINTAINED BY THE DEPARTMENT REFLECTING THE ACCRUED COMPENSATION TIME OF ITS EMPLOYEES ARE SUBJECT TO DISCLOSURE UNDER THE MISSISSIPPI PUBLIC RECORDS ACT?

II. WHETHER THE CHANCELLOR ERRED IN FAILING TO CONSIDER THAT THE DEPARTMENT COMPLIED WITH THE ASSOCIATION'S RECORDS REQUEST IN A REASONABLE MANNER WHICH SATISFIED ANY OBLIGATION IMPOSED BY THE PUBLIC RECORDS ACT TO DISCLOSE THE INFORMATION SOUGHT BY THE ASSOCIATION?

¶11. Since the Department's first two issues have overlapping analyses, the Court will consider these two assignments of error together. ¶12. The Department first asserts that the requested list of comp time for its public employees is exempt from disclosure under the provisions of Miss. Code Ann. § 25-1-100 which provides that "[p]ersonnel records . . . in the possession of a public body, . . . shall be exempt from the provisions of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983." Miss. Code Ann. § 25-1-100(1) (Supp. 1998). The Department contends that any document and/or records which reflect the accumulated comp time of the Department's employees constitute "personnel records" within the meaning of § 25-1-100, and such information is, therefore, exempt from the provisions of the Public Records Act.

¶13. It is true that there are no Mississippi cases addressing whether comp time records maintained pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (hereinafter "FLSA") are subject to disclosure as public records. Furthermore, there are no Mississippi cases construing the scope of the personnel records exception in the present context. Thus, the Department urges this Court to rely on a handful of Attorney General's opinions to support its position that the exemptions to disclosure somehow control over the broad, general disclosure requirements of the Act. However, this is simply not in conformity with long-established legal principles dealing with interpreting such statutory language.

¶14. The Act declares the public policy of the State of Mississippi to be that:

Miss. Code Ann. § 25-61-2 (Supp. 1998).

¶15. The Act defines "public records" to include:

¶16. Finally, Miss. Code Ann. § 25-61-5(1) specifically provides for ...


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