In a published decision released Wednesday, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals (District II) awarded attorneys fees to the Friends of Frame Park because their lawsuit over an open records request played a “substantial factor” in the release of the records.
In response to the City of Waukesha building a baseball stadium in Frame Park, a group of Waukesha citizens, property owners, and taxpayer formed Friends of Frame Park to track how the stadium used taxpayer funds.
In 2017, Friends of Frame Park submitted an open records request to the City of Waukesha for any letters of intent, memorandum of understanding, or lease agreements between the City and Big Top Baseball, a private organization that runs several baseball franchises.
The City denied the request, citing an exception to open records requests where “competitive or bargaining reasons” require it. Friends of Frame Park sued. Two days later, the City sent the draft contract since there was “no longer any need to protect the City’s negotiating and bargaining position.” The City then sought to dismiss the case.
Friends of Frame Park moved for court costs and attorneys fees, per Wis. Stat. § 19.37(2)(a), since a plaintiff can recover attorneys fees even if the record is disclosed so long as the lawsuit played a “substantial factor” in the disclosure. The City claimed the lawsuit did not play a substantial factor and that it would have released the contract anyway because the “competitive or bargaining ” exception no longer existed.
The Court of Appeals began its analysis by describing the confused case law about causation in public records lawsuits, finding it would lead to “absurd results” to credit a lawsuit every time the government releases an open records request after someone sued. It found:
This discussion is not meant to be entirely dismissive of causation, particularly given the significant precedent on which it is based. Rather, we seek to clarify the application of that test where, as here, an authority claims that the expiration of a public record exception, rather than the requester’s lawsuit, was the reason for what would otherwise be an unreasonable delay in the release of a record.
The court then turned to whether the City properly invoked the “competitive or bargaining reasons” exception, stating: “[S]everal cases focus on whether an unreasonable delay was caused by the authority’s improper reliance on an exception under the public records law, regardless of the subsequent voluntary disclosure.”
The court concluded that the exception was unwarranted as the City could not prove it would suffer harm from releasing the documents or on other grounds, adding “the evidence shows that the only competition was from one or more business groups that may have been working to locate a Northwoods League team in a different municipality.”
The City thus did not meet the high burden of proof necessary for denying an open records request and the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to determine the appropriate amount of attorney fees.