Congress Elementary Sch. Dist. No. 17 v. Warren – 3/31/2011

April 5, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Courts May Not Enjoin Future Public Records Requests Unless a Public Entity Specifically Shows That There Is a Public Interest Sufficient to Overcome the Presumption Favoring Disclosure of Public Records.

Defendants Warren, Hoge, Regis, and Rejon, independently filed numerous public records request with Plaintiff Congress Elementary School District between 2003 and 2010.  In 2010, the district filed a complaint seeking injunctive and declaratory relief to enjoin Defendants from filing future public records requests, arguing that the aggregate prior public records constituted a public nuisance, harassment within the meaning of A.R.S. § 12-1809, and an abuse of the public records statutes.  The district did not allege that the four defendants acted in concert, requested material not covered by the public records statutes, or filed frivolous requests.  Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint arguing, inter alia, that an injunction would violate their rights to access public records and would reverse the statutory presumption favoring production of public records.  The trial court granted Defendants’ motion.  It also awarded attorneys’ fees and costs to Hoge after finding that the complaint against her was not made in good faith, left open the possibility of an award to Warren, and declined to award Rejis and Rejon fees.  The district timely appealed.

The ArizonaAppeals Court affirmed.  The Court explained that Arizona’s public records statutes broadly define public records and presume that they will be disclosed.  In this case, the district did not dispute that the documents requested were public records, but only argued that the denial of an injunction would impose a financial burden upon it.  The Court explained that this government interest did not override the presumption of disclosure established by the legislature.  Furthermore, the absence of any prior legal action successfully challenging any of Defendants’ requests also militated against granting prospective relief.  The mere fact that Defendants previously had made requests permitted by statute did not justify an order burdening possible future requests.  The Court explained that the district’s remedy is to deny future requests and raise objections in the context of each such request. 

The Court rejected the district’s argument that prospective relief was available, distinguishing the cases cited by the district.  The Court also rejected the district’s argument that Defendants’ prior public records requests constituted a public nuisance damaging public health, safety, peace, comfort, or convenience. 

The Court awarded Defendants their attorneys’ fees and costs on appeal pursuant to A.R.S. § 39-121.01(B), which authorizes an award “if the person seeking public records has substantially prevailed.”

Judge Weisberg authored the opinion; Presiding Judge Kessler and Judge Johnsen concurred.