Hendersonville Standard: Legal bills climb to $238K in Sumner Schools public records case

The Hendersonville Standard recently reported that Sumner County School Board had another $125,237 in legal bills after voting to appeal a public records ruling, bringing the total cost of the case to more than $238,000.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Joelton resident Ken Jakes who requested to see the school district’s public records policy. He made the request by email and a followup phone call. The school district denied the request, saying their policy dictated he must make the request in person or through letter delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

From left: Citizen Ken Jakes and Sumner Schools attorneys Todd Presnell and Jim Fuqua listen the judge’s ruling that the school district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act. The school district’s legal bills have climbed to $238K.

Judge Dee David Gay ruled in November 2015 that the Sumner County school district violated the Tennessee Public Records Act, and ordered it to change its policy. He noted how simple it would have been for the school district to simply email back a link to the policy, which had been online. The school district decided to appeal the ruling.

Though heavily redacted, the legal bills for 2016 in the case are likely for work to overturn Gay’s ruling at the Court of Appeals.

Read the full story at “Legal bills in Sumner Schools open records case now at $238K

The school district has consistently fought and delayed releasing its legal bills from Todd Presnell of the Nashville law firm of Bradley, Arant, Boult, Cummings on the case. It first said it did not have to release the amounts, then eventually released heavily redacted invoices. When the lawyer for The Tennessean objected to the over-redacted documents, and pointed to the law on the issue, the school board released new documents with less redaction.

However, the unreasonable delays in releasing the amount spent still continue. The Hendersonville Standard made its public records request in August, and only just received the documents on Nov. 30 — more than three months later.

Oral arguments have not yet been set at the Court of Appeals. Jakes’ attorney Kirk Clements filed his reply brief to the Sumner County School Board arguments in October, which is worth reading for any Sumner County taxpayer. (Read Kenneth Jakes’ reply brief)

TCOG filed an amicus brief, with support from the Society of Professional Journalists Legal Defense Fund. From TCOG’s amicus brief:

“The public’s right of access to public records is very broad, and the (Tennessee Public Records Act) does not allow a government agency to establish rules that would inhibit the disclosure of public records for inspection.

“The TPRA requires government entities to make records available for inspection ‘promptly’ after the request is made. The TPRA does not limit the manner in which a citizen may submit to a government entity the citizen’s request to inspect a public record…

“Mr. Jakes’ request was ‘sufficiently detailed’ to enable (Sumner County schools spokesman) Mr. (Jeremy) Johnson to identify the public record he was asking to inspect. The Board’s Public Records Policy was not exempt from disclosure. There was no need to review the record to determine whether it contained any confidential information that needed to be redacted. Under these circumstances, the Board had an obligation under Tenn. Code Ann. 10-7-503(a)(2)(B) to make this public record available for inspection by Mr. Jakes ‘promptly’ after receipt of his emailed request.

“The TPRA does not specify all the ways in which a citizen may transmit a request to inspect a public record. However, Tenn. Code Ann. 10-7-503(a)(7)(A) states that a records custodian ‘may not require a written request … to view a public record.’ By using this language, the General Assembly obviously intended that a records custodian should comply with requests made in all reasonably available ways, including email.”

What do you think?