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Jackson County Circuit Court's Fine of City of Raytown Is a Sunshine Law Cautionary Tale

March 13, 2019 | Lisa Larkin

A Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court Judge ordered the City of Raytown - specifically its City Clerk - to pay more than $42,000 in attorney fees and civil penalties after ruling in July 2018 that the city violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The City Clerk denied the release of records in an apparent attempt to shield the city from litigation involving the design of one of the city’s intersections.

Several months after Plaintiff Paula Wyrick’s mother died in a vehicle crash at an intersection in Raytown. Wyrick requested records from the City about the intersection, including its design, any traffic or other diagnostic studies conducted there, and any complaints about the safety of or accidents occurring at or around the intersection.  On multiple occasions, the City Clerk refused to produce the requested records, asserting all requests fell within the Sunshine Law’s litigation exception.  The litigation exception protects, in part, documents related to potential legal actions or litigation involving a public governmental body. 

Wyrick filed suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the City Clerk.  Wyrick moved for summary judgment asserting that the City Clerk, on behalf of her office, “took a position completely unheard of under Sunshine Law, namely, that a specific category of records can be closed only to Plaintiff and her lawyers, but otherwise open to anyone else.  Put another way, the City Clerk has admitted that she would search for and produce records responsive to Paula Wyrick’s requests, if only the requests would come from a different person.”

The City Clerk countered that Wyrick only sought the records to use in potential litigation against the City of Raytown as a result of her mother’s death.  In the face of this clear and unequivocal threat of litigation in this matter, the City Clerk argued she was justified in closing and refusing to produce the records.

In July 2018, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge S. Margene Burnett granted Wyrick partial summary judgment and ordered production of the design records and traffic studies conducted at the intersection.  She ruled that while Wyrick admitted she was contemplating litigation against the City, the City Clerk’s use of the Sunshine Law as a “shield to hide behind rather than shed light on potentially inappropriate governmental activity…is precisely why the Sunshine Law was enacted.” 

Initially, Judge Burnett declined to order civil penalties against the City Clerk, finding that the refusal to comply was done under an incorrect reading of Missouri law.  However, the Judge reconsidered in November 2018 after hearing additional arguments, which convinced her that the city clerk’s actions rose to a knowing and purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law.  The Clerk had testified that she “implemented a policy to refuse the production of any requested documents to any citizen if that citizen has filed a notice of claim against the City of Raytown, regardless of the nature of the document requested.”  The Court awarded $38,550.00 in attorney fees and assessed civil penalties of $4,000.00, representing $1,000.00 for each of the four distinct violations of the Sunshine Law established by the evidence.  The City filed a Notice of Appeal on February 14, 2019.

This ruling is likely to encourage municipalities to take a closer look at their open-records policies to ensure they are encouraging the spirit of openness which is embodied in the state’s Sunshine Law.

Paula Wyrick v. Teresa M. Henry, in her capacity as City Clerk of the City of Raytown, No. 1716-CV-24321, Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri.  
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The BSCR Missouri Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Missouri law on a broad range of topics of interest to Missouri practitioners and attorneys and businesses with disputes subject to Missouri law. Learn more about the editor, David Eisenberg.

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