Sample state FOI letter
Sample federal FOI letter
History of sunshine laws in Georgia
WHAT MEETINGS ARE OPEN?
The law applies to every state, county or municipal department, agency, board, bureau, commission or authority. It applies to every city, county or regional authority, including development and hospital authorities. These applications include any committee of its members created by any of the above authorities. It also applies to private entities that carry out the functions of a public agency, e.g. private companies which take over the operations of public hospitals. It applies to personnel board hearings (except for deliberations), Tax Equalization Boards, and to coroner's inquests. It also applies to any non-profit organization that receives at least a third of its funds from state or local tax revenues.
Meetings occur when by prior arrangement there is a quorum of the members of a governing body or agency or of any committee of its members, and public business is discussed or presented. See O.C.G.A. 50-14-1.
WHAT MEETINGS CAN BE LEGALLY CLOSED?
A governmental agency is not required to close any meeting; however, it may vote in public to close a meeting to:
---Conduct an inspection of physical facilities under its jurisdiction.
---To meet with government officials outside the jurisdiction; e.g., attend conventions or meet with officials at the Capitol.
---Discuss future "acquisition" of real estate. However, notice that such a meeting is taking place must be given and minutes taken. When the deal is either completed or abandoned, those minutes must be disclosed. Votes must be public.
---Privileged consultations with an attorney regarding pending or potential legal action or claims. However, a meeting with an attorney to discuss the legality of closing a meeting must be open.
---Discuss employment, periodic evaluations or disciplinary actions regarding a public officer or employee. However, the presentation of evidence or argument in disciplinary cases must be open. And any action taken must occur at an open meeting. Meetings to discuss personnel policies in general must be open.
---An agency may also vote to close meetings where discussing security against criminal terrorist threats where closure is necessary to protect life, safety and property.
---Also, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles may close its meetings while deliberating or voting, or if the board determines that witnesses would be at risk if the meeting was open.
---Staff meetings held for investigative purposes as required by law may be closed, as well as meetings of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or other law enforcement bodies; adoption proceedings; and hospital authority meetings when discussing the awarding or revocation of staff privileges, or the granting of abortions. Hospital Authorities may also discuss competitive plans and strategies in a closed meeting.
---Note: The General Assembly is exempt from provisions of the Open Meetings Act. See O.C.G.A. 15-14-13.
NOTICE OF MEETINGS
Governing boards and agencies are required to post information as to the time, place and dates of regular meetings. If a meeting is to be held at other places or times, the agency must provide 24 hours advance notice both by posting notification at the place at which regular meetings are held and by notifying either the local legal organ or the newspaper with a circulation at least as large as the legal organ and to any media that requests it in writing. The notice must be given by telephone or facsimile at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. The law was amended in 1992 to provide that a governing board or agency may hold an emergency meeting with less than 24 hours notice but must give such notice of the meeting and the subjects expected to be considered as is reasonable, including notice to the legal organ or newspaper. See O.C.G.A. 50-14-1 (2)(d) and (2)(e).
AFFIDAVITS OF MEETINGS
When a public agency votes to close all or part of a meeting, its chairperson or presiding officer must submit an affidavit as a part of the minutes of the agency swearing to the topics that were addresses in the closed meeting and identifying any exception under the law which allowed the consideration of a matter in a closed session. O.C.G.A. 50-14-4. Knowingly giving false testimony in the affidavit would be a felony. The affidavit must be made public when the minutes of the meeting are approved.
MEETINGS BY TELEPHONE
Governing boards, agencies, or committees may hold telephone conference call meetings, providing that public access is assured and the public notification provisions of the statute are followed. See O.C.G.A. 50-14-1 (2)(f) and 50-1-5.
HOW TO PROTEST AN ILLEGAL MEETING
Closing a meeting requires a majority vote of the quorum present. The names of those members voting to close and specific reasons for closure must be entered upon the official minutes, and those minutes must be made available to the public. If you believe that a governing board or agency is illegally closing a meeting, tell them so. State that the Open Meetings Law, Section 50-14-1 of the Georgia Code, requires that the meeting be open. Ask them to cite the exemption under which they are closing the meeting. If, despite your objection, the meeting is closed, then file a protest in writing or send a demand letter to the governing agency or board. Demand access to a transcript or minutes of the closed meeting and access to future meetings. State why the meeting was unlawful. See O.C.G.A. 50-14-4.
IF YOU GO TO COURT/ATTORNEY FEES
Under the law, any action taken at an illegally held meeting is not binding and can be set aside if challenged in court within 90 days. If you or your news organization go to court, it would be to force compliance with the law in the future and perhaps to seek a restraining order to prevent any action taken by the defending board or agency from taking effect. It is a misdemeanor to willfully violate provisions of the Georgia Open Meetings Law, punishable by a fine of $500. See O.C.G.A. 50-14-6. In the Code revisions of 1992, the standard for awarding attorney fees was changed (For details, see same section heading under open records). See O.C.G.A. 50-14-5.
WHAT RECORDS ARE OPEN?
"All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, computer based or generated information, or similar material prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency" are public records.
Public records also include these items when they are received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency which is not otherwise subject to protection from disclosure. In other words, placing public records in private hands does not protect them from disclosure. The law also expressly incorporates into the Open Records Act the Open Meetings Act definition of "agency." Also entities that act as "vehicles" of an "agency" are subject to the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act. An entity acts as a "vehicle" when it carries out the functions or responsibilities of an agency or other governing body covered by the law. (See definition under "What Meetings are Open?").
An agency must produce the records within three days or state in writing the records that do exist and a timetable for their production. If access is denied by the agency, it must state in writing the legal authority under which it is withholding the records. O.C.G.A. 50-18-70(f), (h).
WHAT RECORDS ARE NOT OPEN?
Not generally open to the public are medical records; confidential personnel evaluations from outside sources (and some other personnel documents); an individual's social security and telephone numbers, insurance, medical, and banking information, and address; Veterans' DD 214 forms; the files of a personnel investigation until ten days after the investigation has been completed, or the investigative report has been presented for action; real estate acquisition records until the deal has been completed or abandoned; engineering and feasibility estimates until the project has been awarded or abandoned; "trade secrets" which are submitted to public agencies under requirement of law; Information in income tax returns (except for details of credits for creating new jobs); some real estate records until after the transaction; research material not yet publicly released or legally recorded by the person or institution to which it belongs; criminal investigation records when they concern a case still under active investigation; provisions of staff services to individual members of the General Assembly by Congressional reapportionment or House and Senate Research offices; valuable historical research records donated or sold to a public institution for as long as 75 years; information from the Department of Natural Resources on the location and character of a historic property or the site of a rare species of plant or animal, if releasing the information would risk harm to the property; and personal details in rideshare records; documents regarding a pending auto liability claim; Draft requests of the State Auditor for six months; autopsy photos; 911 recordings if disclosure would identify a confidential source or investigation or endanger the physical safety of a person, and documents pertaining to security against criminal or terrorist threats necessary to protect life, safety or property.” See O.C.G.A. 50-18-72(a).
SOME SPECIFICS ON OPEN RECORDS
Law enforcement records: Regardless of the status of an investigation, the initial police arrest, incident or accident report is an open record and must be disclosed. These reports must be disclosed even if they involve allegation of sexual assault and crimes believed to have been committed by juveniles. If the initial arrest or incident reports contain confidential law enforcement information such as the names of confidential informers, a description of confidential investigative material, or information that would endanger the life or physical safety or a person, the law enforcement agency may redact that portion but must produce the remainder. The names of juveniles charged with serious crimes, or under the jurisdiction of the criminal court on more that one occasion, must be produced in these initial records.
Automobile accident reports: In 1999, the General Assembly limited access to automobile accident reports to those persons with a "need" for the records, e.g., the parties involved or insurers. The law specifically states that news gathering by the media is recognized as a sufficient need.
Criminal investigation files: As a criminal case continues after the initial report, the case files are deemed closed and confidential. Once a case is completed by dropping the charges, inactivity, a guilty plea, conviction and affirmance on appeal, the file becomes a public record. A law enforcement agency may still withhold from such a closed file documents that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for a person not charged with a crime and certain other confidential records such as those that would disclose a confidential informer, certain wire tap information, or allegations against persons not charged with a crime.
Public school records: Generally public school records are subject to the same legal requirements regarding disclosure with a few exceptions. One is that annual evaluations of school superintendents and teachers are to remain confidential. Also, student disciplinary records are confidential. However, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is often used by school boards to keep secret more than the law allows. First of all, the Georgia Supreme Court has held that FERPA is not an exception to the Georgia Open Records Act insofar as college disciplinary records are concerned. Also, all that FERPA keeps confidential is the identities of students and their educational records. When those are redacted, school boards should produce documents that pertain to matters of public interest.
Other examples: Records which have been found by the courts to be open include: hospital accreditation records, coroner's records, public university coaches "athletic related" income records, ad valorem property tax records, public employee salary records, public housing rent tenant payment records, car phone records paid by the public, sealed settlement records of cases involving a public agency, and employee records of a private company under contract with an agency to perform a public function. The list is not all-inclusive but offered simply to suggest the range of records that the courts have held to be open for inspection by the public.
HOW TO REQUEST A PUBLIC RECORD
An informal request is the first step, and the best way to preserve good relationships with public employees. If you are refused, or if the request is likely to be controversial, ask for the information in writing, citing Section 50-18-70 of the Georgia Code as the basis for the request. Under the law, you are entitled to a response within three business days from the time of the request. "The agency must produce the records within three days or state in writing what records it has and when it will do so or the exceptions upon which it relies to deny access to the records." (See sample federal and state FOI letters).
HOW MUCH CAN YOU BE CHARGED TO VIEW OR COPY PUBLIC RECORDS?
Citizens have the right to inspect and copy public records under the supervision of the public custodian of those records. The public agency has the right to assess a copying charge of up to 25 cents per page, as well as reasonable search and retrieval fees. (The first 15 minutes, however, are free). Those fees have sometimes become a problem for individuals filing open records requests. The law states that the charges for finding and segregating the records that were requested must be based on the rate of pay of the lowest paid employee capable to search for and organize those records. Sometimes, governing boards or agencies will inflate that figure, saying that the records had to be reviewed by high-ranking law enforcement authorities or managers, or attorneys -- at considerably higher hourly rates. Also before the agency can collect copying costs, it must give an estimate of what those costs will be. It was not the intent of the law for search and retrieval fees to put the price of looking at public records out of the reach of the public.
The courts have specifically held that it is not permissible for the agency's legal counsel to charge the requesting party for the time spent reviewing requests. Also a fee may not be imposed when someone only wants to inspect records that are routinely subject to public inspection, as opposed to requesting copies. See O.C.G.A. 50-18-71.
In 1992, the Legislature made explicit that computer-based or -generated information is a public record. The custodial agency can charge the requesting party only its actual cost of duplicating the computer diskette or computer tape containing the requested information; it may not charge based on the cost of copying each record contained on the tape or diskette. The requesting party needs to know that the public agency is not required to do any significant programming in making this information available. The agency essentially can provide the information as is. See O.C.G.A. 50-18-70. Also in 1999, the legislature directed that if a public agency has reasonable means to do so, it should make its computer stored records available through the Internet. O.C.G.A. 50-18-70.
SELECTING SENIOR MANAGEMENT FOR PUBLIC AGENCIES
In 1992, the General Assembly restricted access to information regarding those who were applying for, or were being considered for, positions such as university president, school superintendent, or county manager. In the law, the class of jobs affected was defined as the "executive head of an agency... or of a unit of the University System of Georgia." The argument advanced for limiting records access was that qualified applicants would be less likely to seek public jobs if their interest in the job was disclosed. As enacted, the law states that "at least 14 calendar days prior to the meeting at which final action or vote is to be taken for the position, the agency shall release all documents which came into its possession with respect to as many as three persons..." considered finalists for the job. An applicant would at that time be able to withdraw his/her name from consideration and avoid disclosure, in which case the identity and records of the next most qualified candidate would be disclosed. Remember that this disclosure requires a request for the records. If the agency decides to conduct its entire search in the sunshine, it need not wait 14 days to take action on the position. An agency cannot avoid disclosure provisions by hiring a private person or agency to assist in the search and to maintain all records. In addition, the agency must disclose the demographic detail of the entire applicant pool at any time request is made. See O.C.G.A. 50-18-72 (a)(7).
IF YOU GO TO COURT/ATTORNEY FEES
In the code revisions of 1992, the standard for awarding attorney fees was changed to give the public and press a better chance of recovering their attorney's fees if one prevails in litigation over an open meetings or records dispute. If the person or organization making the open government complaint prevails and the court finds that the agency acted without substantial justification, the law now says the court shall assess attorney's fee and other reasonable costs of the litigation against the defending agency or board, unless the court finds that special circumstances exist. Under the 1999 revisions, it is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine to willfully and knowingly violate the Open Records Act.
It is worth noting that, with regard to both open meetings and open records, if an agency or official errs in good faith on the side of being open, that person or agency "shall not be liable in any action." See O.C.G.A. 50-18-73.
A NOTE ON COURT PROCEEDINGS AND COURT RECORDS
In 1992, the Legislature added a new section that stated that court exhibits tendered as evidence in a civil or criminal trial would be open to public inspection with approval of the judge assigned to the case. See O.C.G.A. 50-18-71.1. The issue of public access to court records and court proceedings has traditionally been outside the purview of the Open Records Act. However, court proceedings and court records are presumptively open to the public. Uniform Superior/State Court Rule 21 and appellate court decisions in Georgia make court records open even when they include sensitive matters that the parties would prefer to keep private. A series of Georgia Supreme Court cases have held that all court proceedings must be open to the public except in rare circumstances when a trial judge makes written findings based on clear and convincing proof that fair trial rights can be protected only by closing the courtroom. Courts are granted more discretion in closing juvenile cases but must make findings if access is denied following a request from a member of the media or public.
CAMERAS IN THE COURTROOM
In 1985, the Georgia Supreme Court promulgated Uniform Rules for the state trial courts permitting electronic and photographic coverage of judicial proceedings. Uniform Superior/State Court Rule 22. This made Georgia a national leader in advancing electronic news coverage of its state courts. These rules operated without significant incident for over ten years. Nevertheless, in 1996, in the wake of California v. O. J. Simpson, the General Assembly enacted a statute that gives trial courts a series of factors to consider in granting or denying camera access. These factors include the following: the nature of the proceeding; the consent or objection of parties or witnesses; the integrity and dignity of the court; and any other factors that the court determines to be important under the circumstances. The Supreme Court has upheld denial of camera access for the first of two related criminal trials involving identical evidence, but reversed the trail judge for failing to permit camera access to the second trail. The Supreme Court rejected the notion that a defendant's due process rights are infringed by courtroom photography.
The media must make recording and photography requests under Uniform Rule 22 as a prerequisite for electronic or photographic coverage of a trial or hearing. In a 2005 opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court reiterated that openness of courtrooms to camera coverage is the policy of this state, and camera access should not be denied without evidence of record to justify camera exclusion.
SAMPLE STATE FOI LETTER
This letter is a formal request made, individually and on behalf of <your newspapers name> of <your newspaper's home city>, under the Georgia Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. 50-18-70) to obtain access to and permission to copy certain records in your offices.
Specifically, we are requesting...(describe the records you are seeking.) We believe this information is of public interest and would ask that you waive all fees. (When seeking records, you might start by asking for a fee waiver, and let the agency respond. Or if you don't expect fees to be waived but also don't want to be surprised by the cost, you can take the following approach).
We are prepared to pay reasonable search and retrieval fees if necessary. Should your estimate of those fees exceed $XX (whatever you would expect to reasonably pay), please advise us of the costs before they are incurred.
If our request is denied in whole or in part, we ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the Georgia Open Records Act. See O.C.G.A.§ 50-18-72(h). I will also expect you to release all segreable portions of otherwise exempt material. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions about this request.
We look forward to hearing from you within three days in accordance with the Act.
SAMPLE FEDERAL FOI LETTER
Freedom of Information Office
RE: FOI Request
Dear FOI officer:
Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S.C. S 552, I request access to and copies of (Clearly describe what you want. Include identifying material, such as names, places and the period of time about which you are inquiring. If you think they will help to explain what you are looking for, attach news clips, reports and other documents describing the subject of your research.)
I am willing to pay reasonable search and retrieval fees. Please advise me if the costs anticipated will exceed $XX (whatever you would expect to reasonably pay.)
As a member of the news media, I am only required to pay for the direct cost of duplication after the first 100 pages. Through this request, I am gathering information on (subject) that is of current interest to the public because (give reason). This information is being sought on behalf of (give the name of your news organization) for dissemination to the general public. (If a freelancer, provide information such as experience, publication contract, etc., that demonstrates that you expect publication.)
(Optional fee waiver request) Please waive any applicable fees. Release of the information is in the public interest because it will contribute significantly to public understanding of government operations and activities.
If my request is denied in whole or in part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the Act. I will also expect you to release all segreable portions of otherwise exempt material. I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees.
As I am making this request as a journalist (author, or scholar) and this information is of timely value, I would appreciate your communicating with me by telephone, rather than by mail, if you have questions regarding this request. I look forward to your reply within 10 business days, as the statute requires.
Thank you for your assistance.
HISTORY OF SUNSHINE LAWS IN GEORGIA
1966 President Johnson signed federal Freedom of Information Act.
1972 Governor Carter signed Georgia's first sunshine law.
1973 McLarty v. Board of Regents. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to eliminate "closed door meetings which engender in the people a distrust of its officials who are clothed with the power to act in their name."
1974 Congress strengthened federal FOIA, requiring answers to requests within 10 days.
1975 Goggin v. Davey. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to the General Assembly.
1976 Federal "Government in the Sunshine Law" required most meetings of federal agencies to be open to the public.
1976 Houston v. Rutledge. The Georgia Supreme Court defined "public record" to be "all documents, papers, and records prepared and maintained in the course of the operation of a public office" and held that First Amendment principles favoring open communication apply to the Act.
1980 Athens Observer, Inc. v. Anderson. The Georgia Supreme Court held that a report commissioned by the University of Georgia that evaluated the school's math department was a public record even though prepared by a private, outside consultant.
1984 Richmond County Hospital Authority v. Southeastern Newspapers Corp. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the Open Records Act requires disclosure of records identifying the names, salaries and job titles of public hospital employees despite arguments that release of the information might decrease morale and cause the hospital competitive harm; the Court found such speculation clearly insufficient to overcome "the strong public policy of this state in favor of open government."
1984 Florida Publishing Co. v. Morgan. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the press and public have a right of access to juvenile proceedings unless there is an overriding or compelling reason for closure.
1985 Colquitt County Commission Chairman Bill Kennedy was fined $300 in Moultrie State Court after pleading no contest to three counts of violating the sunshine law.
1986 Harris v. Cox Enterprises. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a decision requiring disclosure of a GBI investigative report into ticket-fixing allegations in the Georgia State Patrol and reiterated that "information reflecting upon an individual's performance or official duties would not be exempt" from the Act.
1987 Napper v. Georgia Television Co. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a decision requiring disclosure of investigative fileson the Atlanta missing and murdered children cases; on remand, attorney's fees were awarded to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WSB-TV and ABC News.
1988 Atlanta Journal v. Long. The Georgia Supreme Court held that there is a strong presumption that the public will have access to all court records unless clear necessity is shown for closure.
1989 Board of Regents v. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Georgia Supreme Court held that records relating to the names, resumes and vitae of candidates for a public position, such a president of Georgia State University, must be disclosed under the Act.
1989 Parker v. Lee. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the Open Records Act exemption for law enforcement records compiled in a pending investigation applied only when there is an "imminent adjudicatory proceeding of finite duration."
1989 Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. ACVB. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a decision requiring disclosure of financial and salary records of the private non-profit Atlanta Convention Bureau that receives more than one-third of its budget from tax revenues.
1990-91 Dooley v. Davidson and Cremins v. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that records relating to the outside income of public university athletic coaches are public records.
1991 Dortch v. Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Georgia Supreme Court held that unredacted copies of City of Atlanta car telephone records must be disclosed under the Act even if public officials reimbursed the city for some personal calls made on their own cellular telephones.
1991 Trammel v. Martin. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that a requester of information under the Act cannot be charged for time spent by an agency attorney reviewing the requested documents.
1991 Steele v. Honea. The Georgia Supreme Court held that participation by a public official in a meeting required to be open under the Act can be a ground for recall and pointed out that whenever doubt exists, a meeting should be open.
1991 City of St. Marys v. Camden Newspapers, Inc. The Georgia Supreme Court held that a sexual harassment complaint filed by a city employee against a councilman must be disclosed, even though the complaint was in the employee's personnel file because the employee waived the right of privilege by filing and the complaint was not the type of individual profile found in a personnel file.
1992 McFrugal Rental v. Garr. The Georgia Supreme Court held the custodian of city records could not charge citizens a fee to cover the costs of a temporary employee to supervise inspection of the records unless he could show supervision was necessary and the fee was reasonable.
1992 Haraway Company v. Rives. The Georgia Supreme Court held that Engineer Cost Estimates for the Department of Transportation were not protected by a "state secret" exception, but public interest supports an exemption until the projects are complete or abandoned.
1992 Fathers are Parents Too, Inc. v. Hunstein. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the Legislature did not intend for the Open Meetings Law to apply to the judicial branch of government.
1993 Red and Black Pub. v. Board of Regents. The Georgia Supreme Court held in favor of a student newspaper that the records and proceedings of the UGA Organization Court are subject to the Open Meetings and Open Records Acts because the court is the vehicle for carrying out the responsibilities of the Board of Regents in regulating collegiate social organizations.
1993 Clayton County Hospital Authority v. Webb. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that a non-profit organization that "leased" public hospital assets was subject to the Open Records Act.
1994 Doe v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Ga. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that a report of a rape incident could be obtained, but the victim's name must be withheld, as required under the rape victim confidentiality statute.
1994 Jersawitz v. Fortson. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that under the Open Meetings Act, a "committee" did not need to consist solely of members of the governing body of an agency to be a meeting, and a videotape after the meeting was over was not adequate compliance with the law.
1994 Hackworth v. Bd of Education. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that personnel records of city school bus drivers must be open even if the drivers are employed by a private company under contract with the school board.
1995 Times-Journal, Inc. v. Northwest Georgia Health System, Inc. and Promina Health Systems, Inc. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that entities, including non-profit organizations that act as a "vehicle" of any agency by carrying out the responsibilities of such agency, are subject to the Georgia Sunshine Laws.
1995 Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. City of Brunswick. The Georgia Supreme Court reaffirmed that because a document contains exempted material does not allow the entire document to be withheld. Police department incident reports are public records except for portions that would reveal confidential information or endanger the lives of individuals.
1995 Mullins v. City of Griffin. The U.S. District Court reasoned that because public funds were used to settle a sexual harassment suit filed against the local government, an order of confidentiality concerning the terms of the settlement could not be upheld.
1996 Rockdale Citizen v. State. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed a trial court order closing pretrial hearings in a capital murder case. The Court reaffirmed that open court proceedings are guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.
1998 WALB-TV, Inc. v. Gibson. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld a trail court decision to deny video cameras in the trail of one defendant because it might adversely impact the subsequent trial of a co-defendant. However, the Supreme Court reversed the trial judge's decision to deny camera access to the second trail. The Court rejected vague notions that "due process rights" are infringed by photographing a trial.
1999 Savannah College of Art and Design v. School of Visual Arts, Inc. By a 4-3 vote, the Georgia Supreme Court allowed parties in litigation to keep secret a settlement agreement that was filed under seal as a part of the record in subsequent litigation. The majority of the justices found a general right of private parties to settle their dispute confidentially that outweighed the public interest in access to all court records.
1999 Under the leadership of Governor Roy Barnes, the General Assembly enacted major revisions to strengthen the Sunshine Laws along the lines suggested for several years by GPA.
2000 Howard v. Sumter Free Press. The Georgia Supreme Court held that verbal Open Records request are just as effective as written request.
2001 The Claxton Enterprise v. Evans County. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that a meeting could not closed to meet with an attorney for "potential litigation" unless there has been actual threat of a suit.
2001 Maxwell v. Carney. The Georgia Supreme Court held the Brooks County Commission had to conduct its meeting in a larger room if there was one available if public attendance was such that the regular room was too small to accommodate those present.
2001 Moon v. Terrell County. A meeting discussing personnel matters may not be disclosed simply because the public employee wishes it closed. Also, consideration of documents in a closed personnel meeting is not permissible as the documents constitute evidence which must be disclosed in public.”
2001 Bryan County Board of Equalization v. Bryan County Board of Tax Assessors. The County Board of Equalization is an agency subject to the Open Meetings Act when it deliberates and votes on tax appeals.
2002 Evans County Board of Commissioners v. The Claxton Enterprise. The Court of Appeals held that one who is entitled to attorney’s fees in litigation enforcing the Open Meetings Act is entitled to fees both at the trial level and for the appeal if one becomes necessary.
2004 Slaughter v. Brown. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the Stewart County Board of Education violated the open meetings law by giving notice that it would be meeting at one location, and then changing the meeting without proper notice to another location.
2005 Morris Communications v. Griffin. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the denial of camera access to a murder trial in Effingham County. The Court reiterated that public policy favors such access and that access can only be denied based on facts sufficient to justify a trial court's discretion in denying access.
2005 Mercer University v. Barrett & Farahany. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that law enforcement records of a private university were not subject to the open records laws even though the police officers were sworn public safety officers under state law.
2006 Berryhill v. Georgia Community Support and Solutions, Inc. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the Georgia anti-SLAPP statute applies only to statements made in connection with an official proceeding or investigation.
2006 Central Atlanta Progress v. Baker. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Georgia Attorney General and others who sought documents from the City of Atlanta committee trying to woo the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Super Bowl to Atlanta. While the committees were ostensibly private entities, their membership included several important public officials who pledged political and financial support to their activities. Thus, the Court held that these documents pertain to the performance of public functions and had to be disclosed to the public.
2006 Earth Resources, LLC v. Morgan County. The Georgia Supreme Court held that a technical violation in the notice of a proposed meeting did not make the meeting illegal under the Georgia open meetings law.
2006 Decatur County v. Bainbridge Post-Searchlight. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the County Commissioners could not keep secret a letter sent to them from a grand jury investigating government operations, and that it was illegal for the commissioners to meet in a closed session to consider their response to the grand jury. Attorneys' fees were also awarded to the newspaper.
2007 Athens Newspapers v. Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. The Court of Appeals held that law enforcement records of a 1992 rape and murder must be open to the public because no "pending" investigative activity was ongoing other periodic transmittal of DNA evidence to a national DNA databank. The case has since been appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and as of 4/08, a decision has not been issued.
2007 Smith v. Dekalb County. Georgia Court of Appeals held that a CD-ROM created by the county or municipal superintendent of elections, containing ballot images, ballot styles, and vote totals, are statutorily designated to be kept under seal, and is not an open record subject to disclosure.
2008 In Re: Gwinett County Grand Jury. Georgia Supreme Court ruled that documents and recorded testimony presented to and considered by a grand jury engaged in its civil duty of inspecting or investigating a county office are not “court records” subject to USCR 21, and therefore are not available for public inspection.
2008 Jaraysi v. City of Marietta. Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that a city is barred from asserting an exemption to the Open Records Act if it fails to cite said exemption in a timely written response to an open records request, as required by O.C.G.A. § 50-18-72(h).
2008 United Healthcare of Georgia, Inc, v. Georgia Department of Cmty. Health. Georgia Court of Appeals concluded that all documents relating to a health care provider’s contract with the Georgia Department of Community Health for the administration of the State Health Benefit Plan are public records as a matter of law, but may be exempt form disclosure under the Open Records Act’s trade secrets exemption. Case remanded to trial court for consideration of whether the documents constitute trade secrets.
2008 Fulton Dekalb Hosp. Auth. v. Miller & Billips. Georgia Court of Appeals held that records generated by in-house counsel during an internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by authority employees did not fall under the work product doctrine exception to the Open Records Act since there was no threat of pending litigation.
2008 Athens Newspapers v. Unified Govt. of Athens-Clarke County. Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that records pertaining to a 1992 rape and murder investigation are exempt from public disclosure until the investigation is no longer pending. The Court stated that a case would remain pending until the file is closed, and refused to set time limits on how long an investigation can be kept open. It also held that an agency must respond to an Open Records request within three business days after the agency received the request. Failure, barring special circumstances, will result in the award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.
2009 Goddard v. City of Albany. Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a city manager did not violate a municipal employee’s right to privacy when he released her personnel documents pursuant to the Georgia Open Records Act.
2009 Gumz et. Al. v. Irvin et. al. Georgia Court of Appeals held that discussions after a court hearing adjourned by a quorum of members of a county’s board of commissioners, that were not held pursuant to a call or notice and where no official action was taken, did not violate the Open Meetings Act.
2010 Johnson v. Board of Commissioners of Bibb County. Georgia Court of Appeals held that a governmental body’s closed session to discuss the acquisition of land falls within an exception to the Open Meetings Act requirement under O.C.G.A. § 50-14-3(4).
2010 City of Carrollton v. Information Age, Inc. Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that a request to the city for records of non-health related insurance payments and claims over the past year was not overly broad, and it would not constitute a burden for the city to produce these records.
2010 State Road and Tolling Authority v. Elec. Transaction Consultants Corp. Georgia Court of Appeals held that the submission of a price proposal to the State Road and Tollway Authority, as part of a winning bid to supply part of a highway toll system project, is not exempt from production under the Open Records Act pursuant to the business trade secret exemption.