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Conley v. Spangler

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Tennessee Court of Appeals

Date Filed: Sept. 8, 2021

Update: On Feb. 1, 2022, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s finding that the Knox County Sheriff had willfully withheld documents from two public records requests made by professor Conley. The Court did, however, reverse the trial court’s award of attorneys fees for the entire litigation when only two of the 12 denials were found to have been made willfully, the applicable standard in Tennessee for an award of attorneys fees in public records cases.

Background: Starting in 2017, Meghan Conley, a sociology professor at the University of Tennessee, submitted requests for public records from the Knox County Sheriff under the Tennessee Public Records Act as part of her research into the county’s immigration enforcement. The requests prompted nearly two years of exchanges between Conley and the sheriff’s department, during which the county failed to produce the requested records.

Conley sued Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler in 2019. A year later, a judge from the Knox County Chancery Court found that the sheriff’s department violated the state’s public records law and ordered the department to fix its system for making arrest records available for public inspection. The judge also ordered the sheriff’s department to cover Conley’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

The sheriff then appealed the decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

Our Position: The Tennessee Court of Appeals should affirm the judgment of the trial court, award attorneys’ fees and costs to Conley’s counsel, and remand the case to the trial court for calculation of appellate fees and post-judgment interest.

  • A well-functioning public records process enables journalists to keep the public informed about important issues.
  • The sheriff incorrectly argues that only courts are required to broadly construe the TPRA.
  • That a government agency is not required to “sort through files to compile information” does not mean it does not have to search for public records that can be identified with information provided by the requester.
  • Government agencies must take a common-sense approach when responding to public records requests.
  • The court should reject the sheriff’s suggestion that the fee arrangement in this case is not one for which fee recovery is permitted under the TPRA.

Quote: “[S]hould the Sheriff be successful in this appeal, it would weaken the TPRA — one of the cornerstones of government transparency and accountability in Tennessee, and would negatively affect not only the press, but also Tennesseans more broadly.”

Related: To learn more about the requirements under the Tennessee Public Records Act, check out the Tennessee chapter of our Open Government Guide.

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