No Moving Targets Allowed in FOIA Denials

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Government agencies that cite a particular reason for refusing a Sunshine Law request cannot cite other exemptions after being sued, a Missouri judge ruled this week.
     The Monday ruling in Cole County Court came in a case of a Missouri prisoner, Allaeddin Qandah, against the state Department of Corrections.
     Qandah, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, claimed a Missouri DOC employee intentionally damaged his Quran during a cell search.
     After filing the lawsuit, the ACLU requested certain documents pertaining to Qandah. The DOC denied the request, citing a federal regulation.
     The ACLU claimed there were 14 documents that both parties agreed were responsive to the Sunshine Law request. But the DOC changed its position in its First Amended Answer, citing three more reasons for denial.
     Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled that the DOC couldn't add the additional reasons.
     "The Legislature has mandated that if a custodian denies access to public records, the custodian must, upon request, specify the legal basis for the denial," Beetem wrote in a 6-page opinion.
     "Permitting defendant to assert additional reasons for denial after litigation commences, as it attempts here, renders superfluous the statutory requirement of notice of the reasons for denial. ... It would also discourage citizens from retaining attorneys (or litigating pro se) to challenge the exemptions claimed by a government entity that withholds documents, if, after a lawsuit is filed, the government could cite additional exemptions. This is also contrary to public policy."
     Beetem's ruling means the records requested are not exempt from the Sunshine Law request. The ACLU says the DOC has agreed to turn over the 14 documents and pay the ACLU's legal costs.
     "The average citizen does not have the resources to challenge Sunshine Law denials, and it was unfair to allow the government to pile on exemptions after a lawsuit is filed," Tony Rothert, Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. "The judge's ruling helps level the playing field for the vast majority of citizens who do not have the resources to hit a moving target."