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Media Law Alert: Court Rules Attorneys' Fees Mandatory in Public Records Cases

February 23, 2015

The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, has issued an important decision concerning the assessment of attorneys’ fees to prevailing parties in public records access cases. The Court increased the trial court’s award of $500 in attorneys’ fees and costs to $17,344.58 in fees and costs plus an additional $3,000 for attorneys’ fees and costs on appeal. Brown v. Serpas, 146 So.3d 748 (La. App. 4 Cir. 2014).

The plaintiff in Brown sought public records in the custody of the New Orleans Police Department concerning a deceased suspect who was allegedly involved in six criminal cases. The Police Department agreed to release “initial” police reports but not “supplemental” reports. After the plaintiff filed a public records lawsuit against the police chief, the Department agreed to release both initial and supplemental reports only concerning the one case that resulted in a conviction. The trial court entered a Judgment to that effect, awarded the plaintiff $500 in attorneys’ fees and costs, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeal ruled that because the suspect was deceased, the supplemental police reports were public records subject to disclosure under the Louisiana Public Records Act. Brown v. Serpas, 112 So.3d 385 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/20/13). The Police Department filed a writ with the Louisiana Supreme Court, which was denied.

On remand to the trial court, the judge increased the award of attorneys’ fees and costs to $1047.00, and, on appeal, the plaintiff sought an increase in the award. The Court of Appeal ruled that under the Louisiana Public Records Act, the award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs to a prevailing plaintiff is mandatory, and increased the award to include the costs on appeal and in the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The plaintiff also sought the imposition of civil penalties on the ground that the Police Department had acted in an arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable manner by not producing the requested public records timely. The Court of Appeal denied the plaintiff’s request, holding that the Police Department, while wrong in its interpretation of the law, had not acted unreasonably.

The Brown case is significant because it re-affirms that awards of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs are mandatory to prevailing plaintiffs in public records access cases, and because it sets a reasonable fee in such a case, even though the Court found that the defendant had not acted unreasonably.