Appeals Court Addresses Public Records Law Requirements for Public Bodies

On July 19, 2021, the Appeals Court issued a decision, Bradley v. Records Access Officer, Department of State Police (20-P-0419) holding a public body violated M.G.L. c. 66, §§ 10 and 10A, (the “Public Records Law”) in ignoring an individual’s requests for public records and directives from the Commonwealth’s Supervisor of Public Records (“SPR”) to respond to the requests.

Beginning in September 2018, Adam Bradley (“Bradley”) began filing public records requests with the Department of State Police (“Department”).  The Department’s Record Access Officer (“RAO”) failed to respond to Bradley’s requests.  Bradley sought an order from SPR directing the Department’s RAO to respond to his requests.  SPR issued multiple orders, yet the RAO failed to respond despite the orders.

Consistent with the procedure set forth in the Public Records Law, Bradley filed a complaint in Superior Court alleging among other things, that the Department’s failure to respond constituted a violation of the Public Records Law.  While the Superior Court permitted the RAO’s motion to dismiss the complaint, the Appeals Court took an entirely different approach in finding  “blatant violations” of the Public Records Law.  In particular, the Appeals Court held that the RAO failed to abide by certain requirements of the Public Records Law, primarily, not issuing a response within the ten (10) business days of receipt of the request and ignoring orders from SPR to respond to the requests.  The Appeals Court also rejected the RAO’s post-hoc attempts to justify its failure to respond to the requests.

This decision serves as an important reminder for public bodies to fully understand their obligations under the Public Records Law.  Certain key responsibilities include:

  • Designating an RAO to respond to public records requests;
  • Issuing a response to a request within ten (10) business days of receipt of a request, which may:
    • Provide documents responsive to the request;
    • Deny the request and cite the statutory basis for denial;
    • Request clarification of the request;
    • Assess fees for time spent responding to the request;
    • Inform the requestor that additional time is needed to respond to the request.
  • Understanding the distinction between a request for documents and a request for information;
  • Understanding the categories of information that may be redacted or withheld in documents; and
  • Understanding the distinction between the Public Records Law and Open Meeting Law as it pertains to meeting minutes.

If you have any questions regarding the Public Records Law, please contact any of the attorneys below.  We are pleased to assist RAOs in properly responding to public records requests.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.