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3. Required contents of a written request

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  • Alabama

    There is no prescribed manner of making a written request, except for the few offices that require a request form to be completed. See Blankenship v. Hoover, 590 So. 2d 245 (Ala. 1991). Unless the constraints of time and events dictate otherwise, it is important to follow the denial of an oral request with a written request (typically, a letter to the custodian or governmental entity or official) so that a clear record of the request is established in tangible form — and to give the refusing agency an opportunity to reconsider its initial refusal.

    The description of the requested records should be clear and specific, but broad enough to include all of the records that are sought. A lawsuit for the records might not necessarily be limited to the description in the earlier oral and written requests, but the suing requester will be viewed as fairer if the requester has been clear and reasonably consistent in describing the records that are sought. See Holcombe v. State ex rel. Chandler, 240 Ala. 590, 200 So. 739 (1941) ("We are of opinion and hold that relators had the right, under the statute and their pleadings, to obtain their demand for inspection, and that said demand was not vague or indefinite, but specific.").

    There is no need to address fee issues in the written request unless (a) that issue has been raised by the refusing agency, (b) there is a statutory fee provision for the requested records, or (c) the requester anticipates a problem because of the volume of documents requested, the expense of search and retrieval, or transformation of the requested documents into a different format.

    To avoid misunderstanding — and possible obfuscating delay — it is useful for the written request to include a date or time period for the requested records to be made available. If a quick response is needed because of developing events, it is important to include that information in the written request — so that the custodian will be fully and fairly informed and the court, if necessary, will be assured that the custodian was fully and fairly informed.

    There is no prohibition on making a request for future records.

    Record of delivery of written request: If practicable, a record of delivery of the written request should be made: to whom, what date and time, and where.

    In Ex parte Gill, 841 So. 2d 1231 (Ala. 2002), a prison inmate requested from the Circuit Clerk of Morgan County all records related to his criminal trial. The inmate's request was denied. The inmate petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, citing his right to inspect and copy public records granted to him by § 36-12-40. The court noted that the inmate did not appear personally and did not send an agent on his behalf to inspect and identify the records he requested, and he did not send payment for the requested records. Accordingly, the court held that while the inmate had the right to inspect and copy public records, he did not have the right to shift the burden of inspection and identification of relevant documents to the court clerk, and he did not have the right to get free copies of the requested records. The court further held that section 36-12-40 does not entitle inmates to any relief from their incarceration or to any transportation to the custodian's office to accomplish the inspection and identification of documents and does not entitle them to free copies or to funds to pay for copies.

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  • Georgia

    It is advisable to identify the records requested as specifically as possible; to invite clarification if the custodian finds the request to be unclear; to request that copies be provided in electronic form if available; to pre-authorize fees up to a certain amount if expected to exceed $25; and to request that the custodian communicate with the requester by email so as to expedite the process.

    The Act expressly provides that “[r]equests to inspect or copy electronic messages, whether in the form of e-mail, text message, or other format, should contain information about the messages that is reasonably calculated to allow the recipient of the request to locate the messages sought, including, if known, the name, title, or office of the specific person or persons whose electronic messages are sought and, to the extent possible, the specific data bases to be searched for such messages.” O.C.G.A. § 50-18-71(g).

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  • Kansas

    An agency may require a written request for inspection, but shall not otherwise require a request to be made in any particular form. K.S.A. 45-220(b).

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  • Massachusetts

    No specific form or “magic words” are required for a written request, and the agency cannot demand that any specific form be used.  Guide to Mass. Pub. Recs. Law (Sec’y of State, rev. March 2009), at 2.

    "Reasonable description" is required. 950 CMR 32.05(4). Be as specific as possible.  However, a records custodian “is required to use his or her superior knowledge of his or her records to determine the precise record or records that is responsive to the request.”  Guide to Mass. Pub. Recs. Law (Sec’y of State, rev. March 2009), at 4.

    If copies are requested, a fee may be required before copies are delivered. See 950 CMR 32.05(6). If cost is more than ten dollars, custodian should give an estimate. 950 CMR 32.06(2). If the fee is known or can be approximated, enclosure of check with request is probably advisable.

    This can be added but has no formal significance.

    The custodian has no obligation to comply with prospective requests, but is not barred from doing so, and some custodians may be willing to honor a standing order for a repetitive type of record, or a request for online access or a subscription service to certain information. SPR Bulletin 4-96, Fees for Access and Copying of Electronic Public Records (June 7, 1996); Guide to Mass. Pub. Recs. Law (Sec’y of State, rev. March 2009), at p. 7 (“Since those records are not yet in existence at the time of the request, they are … outside the purview of the Regulations and the custodian may set the fee for such access.”); G.L. c. 4, § 7, cl. 26 (defining “public records” as materials already “made or received” by the governmental entity). Note, however, that a request for a future document would not shorten the response period, Globe Newspaper Co. v. Commissioner of Education, 439 Mass. 124, 131, 786 N.E.2d 328, 333-34 (2003), and that a standing order probably would not be sufficient for an appeal; to be prudent, the requester would still have to submit a written records request after the government record is created or received by the agency, then appeal from denial of, or non-action on, that request.

    The record custodian’s response must be in writing and must include either an offer to provide the requested materials, with “a good faith estimate of the cost of providing the record,” or “a denial of access to the record” that claims a “specific exemption to the public records law” and “details the specific basis for withholding the requested materials.”  Guide to Mass. Pub. Recs. Law (Sec’y of State, rev. March 2009), at pp. 2, 6; 950 CMR 32.08(1).  In particular “[t]he denial must include a citation to one of the statutory exemptions upon which the records custodian relies, and must explain why the exemption applies.”  Id.  If no exemption is asserted, then it is to be presumed that the records sought are public.  SPR98/018 (Letter to Town of Billerica, April 21, 1998).

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  • New Mexico

    A written request requires the name, address, and the telephone number of the person seeking access to the records and shall identify the records sought with reasonable particularity. NMSA 14-2-8(C).

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  • Pennsylvania

    The Law requires that the Office of Open Records “develop a uniform form which shall be accepted by all Commonwealth and local agencies in addition to any form used by the agency to file a request.” 65 Pa. Con. Stat. § 67.505(a).

    The Law states that judicial agencies or the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts “may develop a form to request financial records or may accept a form developed by the Office of Open Records.” Id. § 67.505(b)

    And the Law similarly states that legislative agencies “may develop a form to request legislative records or may accept a form developed by the Office of Open Records.” Id. § 67.505(c).

    If any agency develops policies and procedures, they must be “posted at each agency” or “on the agency’s website” (if any). Id. § 67.504(b).

    The request must be specific and concise:

    “A written request should identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested and shall include the name and address to which the agency should address its response. A written request need not include any explanation of the requester’s reason for requesting or intended use of the records unless otherwise required by law.”

    Id. § 67.703. A request that requires the agency to perform research or analysis as opposed to requesting a specific record may be denied because the request is unspecific in nature. Askew v. Pa. Office of the Governor, 65 A.3d 989 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2013).

    If an agency regards a particular request as lacking sufficient specificity, the agency must communicate that opinion to the requester. Hunt v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 698 A.2d 147 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997).  “Where the request is not sufficiently specific, the agency has no obligation to comply with the request because the lack of specificity prevents the agency from determining whether to grant or deny the request.” Associated Builders & Contractors, Inc. v. Pa. Dep’t of Gen. Servs., 747 A.2d 962 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000) (holding that requests using “phraseology akin to document requests under the civil discovery rules, i.e., ‘any and all documents relating to [subject matter]’” fail to provide sufficient specificity); see also Arduino v. Borough of Dunmore, 720 A.2d 827 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1998) (request for “all records relating to” a particular subject was insufficiently specific and the agency “was not required to comply”); Tapco, Inc. v. Twp. of Neville, 695 A.2d 460, 461 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997) (criticizing requests that “read like discovery requests rather than Right to Know Act requests”).

    The Law states that “[a]ll applicable fees shall be paid in order to receive access to the record requested.” 65 P.S. § 67.901. While nothing precludes a requester from seeking a quicker response, the Law imposes no such obligation on the agency. The Law has no provision for future records.

    Under the Law, an agency may not limit the number of records sought. 65 P.S. § 67.1308 (prohibiting agencies from establishing policies or regulations that include a “limitation on the number of public records which may be requested or made available for inspection or duplication.”); see also Hunt v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., 698 A.2d 147 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997) (“No provision of the Right to Know Act limits a person seeking information to a single request.”). A denial of access “shall not restrict the ability to request a different record.” 65 P.S. § 67.506(a)(2). However, the Law states that an “agency may deny a requester access to a record if the requester has made repeated requests for that same record and the repeated requests have placed an unreasonable burden on the agency.” 65 Pa. C.S.A. § 67.506(a)(1). An agency cannot refuse a request under 65 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 67.506(a)(1) merely because it is duplicative. See Office of Governor v. Bari, 20 A.3d 634 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011). In Bari, the Commonwealth Court held that requesting the same record a second time constitutes “repeated requests” under 65 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 67.506(a)(1). However, the governmental entity must also prove that it was unreasonably burdened by the repetitive request. Id. The court then held that duplicating efforts and budgetary and staffing constraints are inapposite to what it considers an unreasonable burden. See id. It stated that both of these reasons for “unreasonable burden” are too broad and implied that a particularized burden on the agency must be proved.  Id.

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  • Texas

    The request should identify what information is sought as accurately as possible, because the governmental body can ask for clarification if it cannot reasonably understand the request. Tex. Att'y Gen. ORD-23 (1974); Tex. Gov't Code § 552.222. Likewise, the governmental body must make a good faith effort to explain what type of records are available, so a vague request can be narrowed. Tex. Att'y Gen. ORD-87 (1975). Written requests do not have to be in any particular form or use "magic words." Tex. Att'y Gen. ORD-483 (1987). A written request includes a request made in writing by electronic mail or facsimile transmission. Tex. Gov't Code § 552.301.

    The written request should be made to the officer for public information, Section 552.301(c), defined in Section 552.201 as the "chief administrative officer of a governmental body." Also, each elected county officer is the officer for public information created or received by that county officer's office. Tex. Gov't Code § 552.201(b).

    The request need not inquire about the cost associated with the request.  Rather, if a copy request or request to inspect a paper record exceeds $40, the governmental body must provide an itemized statement that details all estimated charges. Tex. Gov't Code § 552.2615. If the requestor does not request a copy of the public information, a charge may not be imposed for making that information available for inspection. Tex. Gov't Code § 552.271.

    While the Act does not require a requestor to specify a deadline for requested production of information, such a specification may hasten release of the information. The statute requires only "prompt" production by the officer for public records and requires that the officer seek within a reasonable time — no later than 10 business days after receipt of the request — an Attorney General's opinion if the governmental body deems the records excepted from the statute's disclosure requirements. While custodians frequently take the 10-day limit to either furnish the requested records or request an Attorney General opinion, the ready availability of many records and the importance of timely disclosure to the requestor in many cases suggest a reasonable time would be less than 10 days. Consequently, the requestor should designate a short deadline where appropriate.

    The Attorney General has taken the position that governmental bodies are not required to comply with a continuing request to supply information as such information is prepared in the future. See Op. Tex. Att’y Gen. OR 2011-04693 (2011); Tex. Att’y Gen. ORD 476 (1987). This position is grounded in the principle that the Act “does not require a government entity to prepare or assemble new information in response to a request.” Thompson v. Miller, No. 03-98-00627-CV, 1999 WL 549205 at *2 (Tex. App.—Austin July 29, 1999, no pet.). The Austin Court of Appeals, however, at least implicitly recognized that a continuing request might be proper. See Ctr. for Econ. Just. v. Am. Ins. Ass'n, 39 S.W.3d 337, 342 (Tex. App.—Austin 2001, no pet.) (holding that an open-ended, continuing request under the Public Information Act for data as it becomes available necessarily involves looking to the version of the Act in effect each time the data is available for release).

    A governmental agency does not comply with the Act by releasing to the requestor another record as a substitute for the specifically requested record unless the requestor agrees to the substitution. Op. Tex. Att'y Gen. OR 2009-11812 (2009).

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  • Wisconsin

    The request must reasonably describe the requested record or the information requested and must be reasonably limited in subject matter and length of time covered by the record. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(h). There is no requirement of any "magic words" in a records request, and a custodian may not ignore a request because it is mistakenly termed a "FOIA" request. ECO Inc. v. City of Elkhorn, 2002 WI App 302, ¶ 22, 259 Wis. 2d 276, 292, 655 N.W.2d 510, 517–18.

    The requester is not required to tender fees until required by the custodian, who may ask for fees in advance only when the total fee will exceed $5.00. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(3)(f). There is no advantage to tendering fees until asked.

    The requester may wish to remind the custodian of the duty to produce records "as soon as practicable and without delay." Wis. Stat § 19.35(4). A realistic specification of a time to respond is also useful as a predicate to suit.

    The statute makes no provision for requests for records which are not in existence at the time they are requested. 73 Wis. Op. Att'y Gen. 38 (Feb. 28, 1984).

    Requesters are not required to identify themselves or state their purpose unless the record is kept at a private residence or security or federal law or regulations so require. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(i).

    Requests may be made by mail and the custodian is required to provide a copy in that case. Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(b), (i). This statutory provision overrules Coalition for a Clean Gov’t v. Larsen, 166 Wis. 2d 159, 479 N.W.2d 576 (Wis. Ct. App. 1991). If the requester appears in person, the authority has the option of producing a copy or requiring the requester to make the requester's own copy.

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