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Private parties liable for attorney fees in open records disputes

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s ruling that held a private party liable for attorney fees in an Access to Public Records Act claim.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades filed a complaint against the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township after the township and the Public Access Counselor the denied a request to inspect and copy payroll records. The records had been submitted by ShepCo Commercial Finishes, a subcontractor on a public-works project.

Although the trial court denied the township’s motion to add ShepCo as a necessary party, it did grant ShepCo’s motion to intervene.

After a hearing, the trial court entered summary judgment for the union and ordered the township to disclose the records. The trial court also awarded the union $20,234 in attorney fees against the township and ShepCo, jointly and severally.

The union then filed a motion to amend the final judgment seeking additional attorney fees expended by its counsel in litigating the original request for attorney fees. The trial court entered an amended judgment awarding the union an additional $2,425.

ShepCo appealed; the Court of Appeals concluded that the company was not liable for attorney fees because it was not a public agency that denied access to public records.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that private parties may be liable for attorney fees under the APRA.  

Writing for the court, Justice Steven David argued, “To shield private entities from liability for attorney’s fees would thwart, rather than further, the public policy underlying APRA. Here, the legislature has made is clear that the APRA must be ‘liberally construed to implement’ the policy of full access to public records and transparency of government affairs. And the legislature clearly contemplated the involvement of private parties in APRA litigation. Removing from private entities any fear of liability for attorney’s fees would deter persons seeking to inspect public records from filing APRA actions, as the private entities could assert non-meritorious defenses to avoid disclosure and drive up litigation costs.”

The Supreme Court affirmed the award of attorney fees to the union and remanded to the trial court to determine what additional attorney fees the union incurred as a result of ShepCo’s appeal.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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