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New Orleans Bulldog Society v. Louisiana Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Supreme Court of Louisiana

May 3, 2017

NEW ORLEANS BULLDOG SOCIETY
v.
LOUISIANA SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS, ET AL.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FOURTH CIRCUIT, PARISH OF ORLEANS

          CRICHTON, J.

         We granted the writ in this matter to determine whether the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("LSPCA") is subject to the Louisiana Public Records Law. New Orleans Bulldog Society v. Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, et al., 16-1809 (La. 1/9/17), __So.3d__. More specifically, we must determine whether the LSPCA, by virtue of its Cooperative Endeavor Agreement ("CEA") with the City of New Orleans to provide animal control services as mandated by the New Orleans Municipal Code, is an instrumentality of a municipal corporation such that it must comply with La. R.S. 44:1 et seq. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the court of appeal, and find that the LSPCA, through its function of providing animal control services for the City of New Orleans, is an instrumentality of the City of New Orleans and must comply with the Public Records Law as set forth herein.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The New Orleans Bulldog Society ("Bulldog") is a nonprofit corporation operating under Louisiana law, and founded in order to advocate for the welfare of dogs in New Orleans and elsewhere. The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("LSPCA"), first chartered in 1888, is a private non-profit corporation recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a private charitable 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. According to the affidavit of Ms. Ana Zorilla, the Chief Executive Officer of the LSPCA, the LSPCA's mission is to "advocate for the animals of Louisiana by advancing their welfare, promoting their interests, and fostering the human-animal bond through innovative programs, education, and services." The LSPCA also provides animal control services for the City of New Orleans ("the City"), as required by Chapter 18 of the City of New Orleans Code of Ordinances. In order to facilitate those services, the LSPCA maintains a "Cooperative Endeavor Agreement" with the City, which states that "[t]he Society shall provide the following service to the City. . . . [f]ield and shelter services for the City in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Agreement and, except as otherwise provided herein, pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 18 of the Code of Municipal Ordinances for the City. . . . relating to animal control and shelter services."[1] The CEA specifically sets forth the duties of the LSPCA to include, among others, continuous patrols with radio contact throughout the City; responding to emergency calls involving animals or threat to human life; investigating reports of violations of the provisions of Chapter 18; maintaining veterinary services; spaying and neutering, rabies vaccinations, and reviewing animal related ordinances with the City.

         On May 29, 2015, Bulldog sent a public records request to the City of New Orleans, pursuant to La. R.S. 44:1 et seq. In the request, Bulldog set forth several inquiries regarding LSPCA's standard operating procedures for evaluating surrendered and stray dogs in terms of determining eligibility for adoption, documents related to those dogs and cats considered "adoptable" and "unadoptable, " specific documents regarding euthanized cats and dogs in certain years, and documents and information relating to LSPCA's participation in court proceedings in Orleans Parish. The request also sought information related to the transfer or euthanasia of a specific animal named Leatrice. The City responded on June 4, 2015, informing Bulldog that it is not the custodian of the records Bulldog sought to obtain, and that the request should be forwarded to the LSPCA.

         Bulldog forwarded its request to the LSPCA on June 5, 2015, to which the LSPCA responded that it is not a "public body" under the Public Records Law, and is therefore exempt from the statute. Although the LSPCA acknowledged its CEA with the City, it stated that the City maintains all information related to the reporting requirements of the CEA.

         On July 22, 2015, Bulldog filed a petition for damages and a writ of mandamus, asserting that, through its agreement with the City, the LSPCA performs a variety of governmental functions that the City is required to discharge as a matter of law. As such, Bulldog asserted the LSPCA is subject to the Louisiana Public Records Law. In response, the LSPCA filed exceptions of unauthorized use of a summary proceeding and no cause of action. The LSPCA attached the affidavit of Ms. Ana Zorilla, [2] who asserted it is a private nonprofit organization, not formed by any public body or pursuant to any legislative or statutory authority. Ms. Zorilla further stated that the LSPCA is not obligated to perform any governmental function beyond what is set forth in the CEA, and the monthly sum of $153, 870, paid by the City to the LSPCA, comprises only a portion of the LSPCA's total budget. The LSPCA also emphasized that even if it the court found that a public record request may be directed to it, the scope of that request should be limited to those documents that are prepared and maintained pursuant to the CEA.

         Following a hearing on September 17, 2015, the trial court dismissed Bulldog's writ of mandamus and request for preliminary injunction, and granted the LSPCA's Motion for Involuntary Dismissal. In her written reasons for judgment, the trial court found the LSPCA is not a "quasi-public" entity subject to the Public Records Law, as the LSPCA is a private non-profit entity with a private board whose mission is independent from the mission of any governmental entity. Furthermore, the trial court concluded the LSPCA was formed as a private nonprofit organization and only 12% of its income is derived from its CEA with the City. The trial court also ruled that by virtue of its reporting requirement to the City under the CEA, the LSPCA had complied with all reporting requirements as set forth therein.

         The court of appeal reversed, finding that the record establishes the LSPCA was acting as an instrumentality of the City in rendering mandated municipal services such as investigating municipal code violations, seizing animals and serving citations in the course of its investigations, euthanizing animals, using vehicles maintained and fueled by the municipality, and employing uniformed officers who appear in court to testify regarding these violations. Therefore, by virtue of its function in complying with the CEA, the court of appeal concluded the LSPCA is a quasi-public entity subject to the Public Records Law. New Orleans Bulldog Society v. Louisiana Society for the Prevent of Cruelty to Animals, et al., 15-1351 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/7/16), 200 So.3d 996.

         The appellate court also found the trial court erred in ruling that even assuming the LSPCA is subject to the Public Records Law, its reporting obligations were met by compliance with the CEA reporting requirements. The appellate court concluded that the Public Records Law "cannot be circumscribed by contract, " as the Public Records statute, La. R.S. 44:1 et seq., is intended to be all inclusive, and not limited to certain contractual reporting requirements. Consequently, the court of appeal ruled that the LSPCA failed to meet its burden (as custodian of the records sought) of proving the documents sought by Bulldog are not subject to inspection under the Louisiana Public Records Law. For the reasons that follow, we agree.

         DISCUSSION

         Article XII, ' 3 of the Louisiana Constitution provides: "No person shall be denied the right to observe the deliberations of public bodies and examine public documents, except in cases established by law." Moreover, "[t]he right of access to public records is a fundamental right guaranteed by La. Const. art. XII, ' 3 of the Louisiana Constitution, and whenever there is any doubt as to whether the public has the right of access to certain records, the doubt must be resolved in favor of the public's right of access." Landis v. Moreau, 00-1157, p. 4 (La. 2/21/01), 779 So.2d 691, 694, citing Title Research Corp. v. Rausch, 450 So.2d 933 (La. 1984). The Louisiana Public Records Law, La. R.S. 44:1 et seq., provides, in pertinent part:

A. (1) As used in this Chapter, the phrase "public body" means any branch, department, office, agency, board, commission, district, governing authority, political subdivision, or any committee, subcommittee, advisory board, or task force thereof, any other instrumentality of state, parish, or municipal government, including a public or quasi-public nonprofit corporation designated as an entity to perform a governmental or proprietary function, or an affiliate of a housing authority. (2)(a) All books, records, writings, accounts, letters and letter books, maps, drawings, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings, memoranda, and papers, and all copies, duplicates, photographs, including microfilm, or other reproductions thereof, or any other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, including information contained in electronic data processing equipment, having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed, or retained for use in the conduct, transaction, or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty, or function which was conducted, transacted, or performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state, or by or under the authority of any ordinance, ...

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