A New York State Supreme Court justice awarded the New York Civil Liberties Union attorney’s fees last week after ruling that Erie County had violated the state’s Freedom of Information Law, according to court documents.
The county was ordered to pay $9,123.90 for litigation it made necessary when it refused to honor the union’s Oct. 2009 freedom of information requests.
The NYCLU’s requests sprouted from a Department Of Justice lawsuit charging the county with violating constitutional standards of confinement in Erie County jails, said NYCLU attorney Corey Stoughton. Allegations of mistreatment of prisoners, poor sanitary conditions, security problems and lack of proper mental health care were among the complaints brought against the county’s correctional facilities.
“One of the county’s main lines in discussing this has been always to talk about how unreasonable it is for the federal government to ask them to spend more money on making the jails a humane place to be because the taxpayer shouldn’t be forced to spend more money on that kind of thing,” she said.
The NYCLU was interested in how much money the county spent on litigating similar cases and soon found itself with plenty of first-hand experience.
“We had heard all of this discussion about Erie County really litigating this case to the hilts and also hiring outside counsel, expensive lawyers from around the state even, to come in an defend these cases aggressively,” Stoughton said.
The NYCLU requested to see records of litigation costs and attorney's fees incurred by investigations into the jails’ conditions in order to determine how much the county was spending to fight lawsuits, Stoughton said.
The county refused to produce a single page of information, giving six reasons and no justification.
“They just claimed it was not public information for a variety of reasons, which is ridiculous because it was fundamentally just a question from the public about how the county is spending public funds,” Stoughton said.
The county primarily relied on attorney-client privilege in withholding the documents, but the court found that “the County could have redacted the documents pursuant to FOIL Section 89(2)(c)(I) in response to their concerns about privacy, attorney/client privilege and attorney work product, but they responded with a blanket refusal to disclose any of the records.”
The court ruled that, because the county did not sustain its burden of demonstrating a particularized and specific justification for denying access, it must produce all of the related information with necessary redactions, according to Justice Timothy Drury’s decision.
It was further ruled that the county was responsible for the union’s attorney’s fees because it had no justifiable basis for refusing the requests under the the state's Freedom of Information Law, court documents said.
Acting County Attorney Kristen Klein Wheaton was unavailable for comment Monday.