On Thursday, the House passed CS/CS/SB 80, an act that amends Florida’s public records law to require a court to ward attorney fees and enforcement costs in actions to enforce public records laws if: (1) the court determines that a public agency unlawfully refused access to a public record; and (2) the plaintiff provided written notice to sue the agency at least five business days before filing the action. CS/CS/SB 80 includes certain circumstances under which the advance written notice is not required.
Conversely, the court must award reasonable costs and attorney fees against the plaintiff if it determines that the request for public records or the action to enforce the request is frivolous, intended to harass the agency, or intended to cause a violation of the public records law.
CS/CS/SB 80 is consistent with recommendations contained in a January 2016 research report by Florida TaxWatch entitled “Predatory Public Records Requests.” TaxWatch undertook this research to examine the impacts of financially-motivated and malicious public records practices on public and private entities, and to make recommendations to stem the misuse of Florida’s public records law.
The intentional misuse of public records law that gave cause to CS/CS/SB 80 falls into one of two types. The first involves public records requests filed with the intent of creating confusion that results in a lawsuit, with the hope of securing a cash settlement. The second involves those who file public records requests with the intent of preventing government from operating efficiently, by overburdening the budgets and staff of public agencies.
Left unchecked, government will likely become less efficient, as the misuse of the public records laws will continue to overburden public officials, both in terms of staff time spent processing these malicious requests and budget dedicated to defending the public agency against these malicious public records lawsuits. Left unchecked, government will likely become less transparent and accountable, as public officials are more likely to conduct fewer meetings and more likely to create less documentation. This will make it more difficult for taxpayers to become informed, and more difficult for informed taxpayers to monitor the activities of their government.
Florida TaxWatch commends the House and Senate for passing this important bill. CS/CS/SB 80 now goes to Governor Scott for consideration.