This template is for journalists seeking to compel a state agency to turn over records requested under the Alabama Public Records Law. The template provides a general outline for complaints filed in Alabama state circuit court with areas for editing in brackets. Alabama has no provision for administrative appeal from denial of access to public records. If a records request is denied by an Alabama state agency, the only remedy available for a journalist seeking documents is to sue for access in Alabama state circuit court.
The following explains the process:1
1. Request documents from the agency.
Under Alabama’s Public Records Law, any citizen has the right to inspect and take copies of public writings, except for public writings exempted by statute.2 This right to inspect and copy extends to the “news media.”3 Alabama’s law is silent as to the procedure for obtaining public records. The request may be made initially in person or by telephone to the office that holds the records. Some governmental entities, however, require requesters to complete a written request form.
If an oral request is denied, there is no required manner of memorializing a refusal. As such, it is important to follow the denial of an oral request with a written request so that a clear record is established. Alabama’s Public Records Law contains no prescribed time for an agency to respond to a records request, but the Alabama Attorney General has stated that a custodian of records may not cause “unreasonable delays” in accommodating a request for public records.4
2. File a complaint in the state circuit court in the county where the custodian of the records resides.
If an agency denies all or part of a request for public records, any citizen, including any member of the news media (whether a corporation other business form) and any group with an interest or stake in the controversy, may sue the agency official with possession and control over the records to compel production of the records.5 The requester should file a complaint in the state circuit court in the county where the custodian of the records resides.6 Injunctive relief is the usual remedy, sometimes coupled with a declaratory judgment. The petition for injunctive relief should ask the court to enjoin the defendant from denying the plaintiff access to the public records.
The typical public records case addresses a denial of the request for access to the records, with the court deciding whether the requested records are public records, whether they are subject to an exclusion in whole or in part, and sometimes the logistics of an ordered disclosure of the records. The Alabama Public Records Law contains no provision for the award of costs or attorneys’ fees, but there is case law authority for awarding costs and attorneys’ fees in public records cases.7
1 For more information, please consult the Alabama Open Government Guide at http://www.rcfp.org/alabama-open-government-guide.
2 Ala. Code § 36-12-40 (2013). The Alabama Supreme Court has held that a “public writing” is a record that “is reasonably necessary to record the business and activities required to be done or carried on by a public officer . . . ” Stone v. Consolidated Publishing Co., 404 So. 2d 678, 681 (Ala. 1981). It has also held that certain types of public writings can be withheld to protect privacy and other interests. Id. An agency may respond to a records request by claiming that some or all of the requested documents do not qualify as “public writings” or that the agency’s or some other entity’s interest in non-disclosure outweighs the journalist’s right to access.
3 See Stone v. Consolidated Publishing Co., 404 So. 2d 678, 681 (Ala. 1981).
4 Op. Att’y Gen. Ala. No. 2008-073, 2008 Ala. AG LEXIS 43 (Apr. 21, 2008).
5 See Ala. Code § 36-12-40 (2013); Scott v. Culpepper, 220 Ala. 393, 393-94 (1930) (county citizen); Chambers v. Birmingham News Co., 552 So. 2d 854 (Ala. 1989) (newspaper).
6 Ala. Code § 6-3-2(b)(3)(2013).
7 See Bell v. Birmingham News Co., 576 So. 2d 669 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991) (open meetings case; award of attorneys’ fees upheld); Advertiser Co. v. Auburn Univ., 579 So. 2d 645 (Ala. Civ. App. 1991) (recognizing discretionary right of trial court to award fees in public records case in which a “litigant rendered a public service by bringing an improper governmental practice to an end”); Tuscaloosa News v. Garrison, No. CV-99-408 (Cir. Ct. of Tuscaloosa County, Ala., Jan. 15, 2001) (both public records and open meetings issues; portion of fees granted).