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Newspaper wins access to state's tobacco litigation billing records

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    NMU         MINNESOTA         Freedom of Information    

Newspaper wins access to state’s tobacco litigation billing records

  • A state court of appeals ruled that the private law firm that handled the state’s tobacco lawsuit must release billing records to a newspaper.

Feb. 14, 2003 — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 28 that billing records from the private law firm that handled the state’s lawsuit against major tobacco companies are public documents and cannot be kept secret by claims of attorney-client privilege or the work-product doctrine.

In 1998, the law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis, received $440 million in fees in their suit against the tobacco industry on the state’s behalf.

In 2000, the weekly newspaper City Pages sued for access to the billing files under Minnesota’s open records laws.

The court of appeals held that the billing records were “government data” that were subject to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The billing records were not considered “legal advice” and were not protected by attorney-client privilege.

The court also held that “opinions, conclusions, legal theories or mental impressions of counsel” associated with the legal proceeding are protected by the work-product doctrine. It holds that certain preparatory documents made in preparation for a trial can be kept secret. Billing records were not considered to be this type of and the court held that they should be released.

“We saw the lawsuit as a golden opportunity to remind our elected officials and their powerful friends that to be healthy, a democracy must be watched over by a free, independent, and vigorous press. And with $6.1 billion at stake, we were incredulous that the details of the taxpayers’ 1998 tobacco settlement weren’t transparent,” stated a Jan. 29 City Pages editorial.

(Media Atttorney: Mark Anfinson , Minneapolis) GS

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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