The following template is for journalists seeking to compel a state or local government entity to turn over public records requested under the Mississippi Public Records Act (“MPRA”).1 The template provides a general outline for complaints filed in one of Mississippi’s Chancery Courts, with areas for editing in brackets. Filing a complaint with the court is the last step of the process for seeking documents under the MPRA. Before filing a complaint, a journalist seeking documents must first request the records from the government entity that possesses the records. If the government entity refuses to make the records available, the journalist may also (but is not required to) seek relief from the state Ethics Commission before filing a complaint with the court.
1. Request Documents from the Agency.
The MPRA permits each “public body” to adopt “reasonable” written procedures “concerning the cost, time, place, and method of access” to its public records.2 Before making a request for records from any public body, it would be advisable to contact the entity or review its website to ensure that the request is made in compliance with any procedures the entity might have adopted, and to determine what fees might be charged for access to or copies of the requested records.
Each public body’s rules must provide that requested public records will be made available, or that the request for records will be denied, within seven working days of the date on which the request for records is received.3 If a public body is willing to produce the requested records but cannot do so within seven working days, it must provide a written statement confirming that the records will be produced and explaining “with particularity” why the records cannot be produced within the seven day period.4 Unless there is mutual agreement among the parties, the production must occur no later than fourteen working days from receipt of the records request.5
If a public entity denies a request for access to or copies of public records, it must issue a written denial that contains a statement of the specific exemption from disclosure it relies upon.6 The exemptions are described generally in Miss. Code Ann. §§ 25-61-9, 25-61-11 and 25-61-12, but section 25-61-11 also incorporates any other statutory provision, constitutional provision or court decision that “specifically declares a public record to be confidential or privileged, or provides that a public record shall be exempt from the provisions of [the MPRA].”
Some public entities provide an adversely affected person the opportunity to appeal an initial denial of a records request to another official within the public entity. When permitted, that may be a worthwhile option to pursue, but it is not necessary to pursue such an administrative appeal before seeking relief from a court.7
2. Optional: File a Complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission
Any person denied access to a public record may file a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission (“the Commission”), which has the authority to enforce the MPRA.8 To file a complaint with the Commission, the requestor must complete Form MEC-R1.4, obtainable from the Commission’s website, and attach any written denial of his or her records request to the form.9 The Commission will then forward a copy to the head of the public body involved, and afford the public body fourteen days to file a response.10 After receiving the response, or if no response is received within fourteen days, the Commission can either dismiss the complaint or set a hearing in accordance with its rules and regulations.11 The Commission has the authority to order the public body and its employees to produce the records or take other reasonable measures to comply with the MPRA, and it may require production of records for the Commission’s private review.12 If the Commission exercises its option to conduct a private review of requested records, it must complete its review within thirty days of receiving the records.13
3. File a Complaint with a State Chancery Court.
A person denied access to public records may file a complaint with a Mississippi chancery court.14 He or she may take that action regardless of whether an administrative appeal was pursued within the public body involved, and without first seeking relief from the Ethics Commission.15 However, any person filing a complaint in the chancery court is required to serve written notice to the Ethics Commission at the time the complaint is filed.16
In addition, if a person denied access to records sought relief from the Ethics Commission, he or she may appeal any adverse Commission decision to the chancery court or petition the chancery court to enforce a favorable Commission decision.17
The chancery court has the authority to compel the production of improperly withheld public records, and may also impose monetary liability on any person who denied access to non-exempt public records or charged an unreasonable fee for providing public records. The liability may not exceed $100 per violation, plus all reasonable expenses incurred by the requestor in bringing the lawsuit.18 The expenses that can be recovered include reasonable attorney’s fees.19
The following template may be used to prepare a chancery court complaint against a public body that has denied a request for records. The complaint should be filed in the chancery court for the county in which the public body is located.
1 The MPRA grants all persons the right to inspect and copy non-exempt “public records” of a “public body.” MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-5(1)(a). “Public records” are defined to be records and other materials, “regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed or retained for use in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of any public body, or required to be maintained by any public body.” MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-3(b). The term “public body” is defined to be “any department, bureau, division, council, commission, committee, subcommittee, board, agency and any other entity of the state or a political subdivision thereof, and any municipal corporation and any other entity created by the Constitution or by law, executive order, ordinance or resolution. . . .” MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-3(a).
2 MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-5(1)(a).
3 Id. If the public body has not adopted written procedures for handling records requests, the MPRA requires the entity to make records available for inspection and copying within one working day after a written request for records is received. Id.
4 MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-5(1)(b).
6 MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-5(3).
7 See MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-13.
9 See http://www.ethics.state.ms.us.
10 MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-13.
18 MISS. CODE ANN. § 25-61-15.
19 See Miss. Dept. of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks v. Miss. Wildlife Enforcement Officers’ Ass’n, Inc., 740 So.2d 925 (Miss. 1999).