Court: North Carolina Court of Appeals
Date Filed: March 23, 2023
Update: On Sept. 12, 2023, the North Carolina Court of Appeals awarded summary judgment to WBTV. The court’s opinion reaffirmed the strength and importance of the North Carolina Public Records Act, finding that the law must be “liberally construed to ensure that governmental records be open and made available to the public.”
Background: In 2021, WBTV reporter David Hodges submitted a request under the North Carolina Public Records Act for information related to a contract the city of Charlotte reached with the consulting firm Ernst & Young to help improve teamwork among city council members. Hodges specifically asked for a copy of a survey the firm sent to the mayor and each council member, as well as the officials’ responses.
Despite the fact that the city’s contract with Ernst & Young states that the city would retain control over records produced as part of the consultancy, the city denied Hodges’s public records request, claiming that they were in the firm’s possession and thus not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.
After WBTV filed suit and moved for summary judgment, the city issued a subpoena to Ernst & Young, which produced the requested records. The city then provided the records to WBTV. The lower court awarded summary judgment to the city, finding that, because the city had produced the records, WBTV’s motion for injunctive and declaratory relief was moot.
WBTV appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Our Position: The appeals court should find that the requested records were, at all times, public records subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act, and reverse the district court’s order denying WBTV’s motion for summary judgment.
- The city’s interpretation of the Public Records Act threatens to stymie reporting on matters of public concern.
- Jurisdictions around the country have found documents are public records if they are within a government agency’s constructive control.
Quote: “Under such a narrow reading, an agency facing scrutiny from the press and public could simply transfer possession of records to a private party in an effort to avoid its disclosure obligations under the Act. Such a result is antithetical both to the spirit and purpose of the Public Records Act, and would threaten North Carolinians’ access to essential information about the functioning of their government.”