Relief for records requestors? Schools ordered to pay fines, attorney’s fees in open records lawsuits

Violating state open records laws could actually cost you a lot of money, officials in Washington and Iowa have learned this month.

First, the University of Washington was ordered last week to pay more than $720,000 in fines for withholding 12,000 pages of public records from a former professor who wanted to see whether she was wrongfully denied tenure at the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus because of her gender or heritage. She worked at Tacoma from 2002-10 and applied for tenure three times in the computer science department, which had solely male faculty at the time, according to The Seattle Times.

The professor lost a federal discrimination lawsuit before the records were provided. When they were, she learned the records showed derogatory references about her French heritage. Had the records been turned over in a timely way, it could have helped the professor make her case in federal court, her attorney said.

Judge Monica Benton found the school printed some of the documents in 2009, but didn’t turn them over until after a court order in June 2011. Because of the “intentional delay,” as Benton put it, the university was fined 50 cents per record for each day it was withheld — a total of $720,000.

Across the country, on Wednesday, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 split that Davenport Community Schools must pay an additional nearly $6,000 in attorney’s fees stemming from a 2010 open records suit, according to a story from Illinois ABC affiliate WQAD-8 TV. Attorney David Roston filed the original suit in October 2010 on behalf of a Davenport student’s parents after the district denied to provide the parents copies of public documents, some of which included:

  • Policies insuring the district against risks connected with special education and special education due process hearings or mediation
  • Documents relating to the creation of the Connecting Learning Assures Successful Students (CLASS) Program at a local elementary school, as well as documents referring to the application of the CLASS program to a child with disabilities
  • Documents discussing the establishment or use of a “reflection room” at the school, including records received from or created by outside sources
  • All documents addressing anti-bullying policies, including protection against bullying of students by district employees, as well as paperwork relating to appropriate use of conduct reports

Lawyers for Superintendent Julio Almanza told the appeals court that the district was already ordered to pay nearly $9,700 to cover attorney’s fees after a judge determined that the district violated the state’s open records law, which meant the plaintiffs weren’t entitled to additional fees. The court’s majority opinion states that the district judge was mistaken in prematurely declaring the court case to be over and terminating the parents’ right to additional legal fees.