Press must be given complete information about settled lawsuits
KENTUCKY–The Lexington-Fayette County government must disclose the details of out-of-court settlements made in lawsuits against the local police department, the state Supreme Court in Frankfort ruled unanimously in late-March.
The Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper sought access to records involving payments made by the county over a five-year period to settle personal injury lawsuits. The county released information showing it settled three lawsuits for $137,500, $20,000 and $7,141 but withheld information regarding the identities of the recipients and the injuries they sustained. The county claimed that confidentiality provisions of the settlement agreements prevented the release of the identities of the recipients.
The county also argued that the privacy exemption of the state Open Records Act allowed it to keep the names of the recipients secret because disclosure of the names would constitute a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The Herald-Leader filed suit in Fayette Circuit Court to compel release of the settlement details. The court found that the privacy exemption did not apply and the appellate court in Frankfort affirmed.
In affirming the appellate court’s decision, the Supreme Court held that the county could not “circumvent the statutory requirements by agreeing to keep the terms of the settlement confidential.” Moreover, the high court held that the public’s interest in the details of the settlements at issue outweighed the recipients privacy rights. “The unambiguous purpose of the Open Records Act,” the court reasoned, “is the disclosure of public records even though such disclosure may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.” (Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government v. Lexington Herald-Leader Company; Media Counsel: Robert Houlihan, Jr., Lexington)