Appeals Court Clarifies the Reasonableness Standard for Public Records Requests

On March 15, 2024, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision in Friedman v. Division of Administrative Law Appeals, No. 23-P-369, which decided whether certain public records requests adequately describe the records sought. The Massachusetts Public Records Law, G.L. c. 66 § 10(a), requires state governmental agencies to provide access to public records so long as three conditions are met, including a requirement that the request “reasonably describes the public record sought.” This requirement is generally met when the request is specific enough to allow a professional employee to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.

At issue in Friedman were five public records requests submitted by Bruce Friedman, who is the founder of a community-based news outlet, to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (the “Bureau”). The Bureau initially agreed to produce documents to Friedman on a rolling basis without charge. However, the Bureau stopped producing documents because Friedman kept submitting more public records requests, which interfered with the Bureau’s attempts to comply. Friedman sued the Bureau under the Public Records Law, seeking to compel production responsive to the five records requests. The Superior Court dismissed his complaint and Friedman appealed, resulting in the decision by the Appeals Court.

The court addressed Friedman’s first request which sought all e-mail and text messages between the Bureau and anyone with an email domain belonging to a law firm that conducted business before the Bureau during a three-year timeframe. Although this request was extensive and burdensome on the Bureau, encompassing 11,000 documents, the court found that the Bureau has a duty to provide the records because the documents can be identified with reasonable effort. The court dealt differently with Friedman’s second request, which sought text messages exchanged between Bureau staff and “anyone who currently works or has worked” at the law firm over a five-year period. The court found the request unreasonable because Friedman did not identify the names of past or present employees of the law firm nor did he provide cell phone numbers. The court held that this would have required the Bureau to determine each person who worked at the law firm and their cell phone numbers.

The court also found that two more of Friedman’s requests did not reasonably describe the records sought. One of these requests sought “any and all data contained in the case management system” used by the Bureau over a fourteen-year period. The other request covered “any and all raw data in any format” concerning twelve separate categories of information over the same period. The court reasoned that these were broad sweeping requests that lacked specificity. The court decided, however, that Friedman’s final request was reasonable. That request sought the calendars of the Bureau’s Director. Because the Bureau was able to identify the responsive data, the court found that the request reasonably identified the records sought.

The court’s ruling states clearly that the relevant inquiry is whether the request is specific enough that the documents requested can be identified with reasonable effort. The court did not find that any of Friedman’s requests were too burdensome to meet the “reasonably describes” requirement. Recognizing that the litigation was only in the initial pleadings stage, the court, in a footnote, stated that a request “could simply be too burdensome to meet the ‘reasonably describes’ requirement”, and did not rule out the possibility that the Bureau might substantiate this with specific facts at a later stage in the case.

Governmental entities should be aware of Friedman because it shows how courts will apply the rule that public records requests must be reasonably described. State and local government agencies are well-advised to work with requestors to narrow down onerous requests, including identification of the documents sought and the timeline for production.

If you have any questions about the content of this update or about the Public Records Law, our attorneys are pleased to assist public officials with all public records issues.

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