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City officials ordered to release legal bills to newspaper

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         KANSAS         Freedom of Information         Feb 4, 2000    

City officials ordered to release legal bills to newspaper

  • The state’s highest court recently found that legal bills are not protected by the attorney-client privilege or work product exemptions to the Kansas Open Records Act.

The city of Overland Park must release its legal bills to The Kansas City Star, a unanimous state Supreme Court ruled in late January.

The court rejected the city’s claim that the billing records themselves were privileged attorney-client communications and work product exempted from disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.

“Attorneys have methods of communicating with clients other than in billing statements,” Justice Edward Larson wrote for the court. “We reject the city’s contention that the attorney-client privilege applies to every interaction between attorney and client.”

The Star had requested the city turn over all bills it had received from outside law firms that did legal work for the city in 1996. The city released summaries of the bills but not copies of the actual ones, which the city said were all protected from disclosure by the privileges protecting attorney-client communication and work product.

The newspaper filed suit in district court in Olathe, arguing that the city could not automatically claim all the requested documents were privileged without first examining them individually and then releasing the information that was not confidential.

Finding the records were presumed public, the district court ruled in July 1998 that the privileges the city raised were intended to keep confidential only those records about giving or receiving legal advice. To determine whether a particular exemption or privilege applied, the district court first ordered the city to prepare a log describing each record in detail and how an exemption applied to it. Those documents not privileged would then have to be released.

The city submitted a log to the court that merely listed all of the requested documents it possessed and the exemptions and privileges it was citing to keep them secret. The court found the list unresponsive to its earlier order and ruled that the city had to release all of the billing information to the newspaper. The city appealed the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court in Jefferson City, which affirmed in a Jan. 28 decision.

In order for the confidentiality privileges to apply, the Supreme Court said an attorney-client communication should relate to the giving or receiving of legal advice. The billing records the city wanted to keep secret did not, on their face, do that. Because the open records law mandates broad disclosure of public records and because the district court had not abused its discretion, the Supreme Court said it would not disturb the order requiring the city to release all of its legal billing records.

(Cypress Media v. City of Overland Park; Media Counsel: Timothy McNamara, Kansas City, Mo.)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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