By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Associtation
A Huntington resident has asked the Indiana Supreme Court to sort out what “reasonable particularity” means as a requirement for records requests under the Access to Public Records Act.
The case stems from Seth Anderson’s request for all emails sent or received over a 4½ month period by the three Huntington County commissioners and the county’s human resources director.
Anderson’s attorney, Justin Wall of Huntington, wrote in the petition to transfer the case to the state’s high court that officials initially denied Anderson’s request because it lacked “reasonable particularity” about the records being requested.
Anderson decided to file a lawsuit seeking the records in Huntington County Superior Court before Special Judge Kenton Kiracofe.
Kiracofe ruled against Anderson, but ironically the commissioners decided to comply with Anderson’s request before the ruling.
Although he had the records, Anderson appealed the trial court ruling, but the appellate panel of Judges John Baker, Michael Barnes and Elaine Brown also ruled against him.
Baker, who wrote the opinion, relied on a string of public access counselor opinions that refer to email as a method of communication, not a type of record. The opinions also require requests for emails to include both the sender and recipient to be considered reasonably particular.
So despite the fact that the county was able to identify the 9,500 records Anderson requested and make them available after redacting confidential material, Baker ruled the request wasn’t particular enough under the law.
While deferring to the public access counselor’s office, the case seems to run contrary to another Court of Appeals decision from last year, Jent v. Fort Wayne Police Department.
In that case, inmate Michael Jent requested “daily incident log reports” from the Fort Wayne Police Department of specific crimes reported.
Sgt. Andrew Bubb denied the request to the extent that the records were investigatory records. But he said the police agency would respond with daily log records if the department still had those records.
Bubb also explained that the department didn’t have the software sophistication to search by the parameters outlined by Jent.
The Allen Circuit Court ruled in favor of the police department when Jent filed suit under the Access to Public Records Act. A panel of Judges Edward Najam, Patricia Riley and Carr Darden heard Jent’s appeal.
In addressing the question of reasonable particularity, Najam’s opinion noted that the appellate courts had not interpreted the language of the Access to Public Records Act.
The opinion then drew upon the rules of discovery in trial proceedings, where courts have found that a requested item was reasonably particular if it enables the subpoenaed party to identify what is sought and enables the trial court to determine whether there has been sufficient compliance with the request.
In Jent’s case, his added detail about which records he was requesting actually worked against him.
“Depending upon the storage medium, the details provided by the person making the request may or may not enable the agency to locate the records sought,” Najam wrote. “Indeed, here the FWPD was unable to fulfill the request using the search parameters Jent provided.”
While Jent lost his case, applying Najam’s interpretation to the Anderson case should have changed the result since Huntington County actually provided the records requested.
Hopefully, the Indiana Supreme Court will take the Anderson case and clarify “reasonable particularity.”
Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.