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Boren v. Taylor

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 29, 2017

JAMES E. BOREN
v.
EARL B. TAYLOR

         ON SUPERVISORY WRITS TO THE TWENTY-SEVENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT FOR THE PARISH OF ST. LANDRY

          HUGHES, J. [*]

         This case presents the res nova issue of whether an attorney, representing an incarcerated felon, is subject to the provisions of La. R.S. 44:31.1, when making a public records request to obtain information relative to a potential post-conviction relief application. Both the district court and the appellate court ruled in the affirmative. For the following reasons, we reverse and remand with instructions.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Attorney James E. Boren was retained by Stephan M. Bergeron to review his 2013 rape convictions to determine if there were any valid bases for post-conviction relief.[1] Mr. Boren forwarded a written request on June 30, 2015 to the St. Landry District Attorney's office, seeking to review and copy records related to Mr. Bergeron's conviction under the Louisiana Public Records Law, La. R.S. 44:1 et seq. Assistant District Attorney Donald J. Richard replied to the request, in a July 14, 2015 letter, requesting Mr. Boren disclose the nature of his relationship with Mr. Bergeron, i.e., whether Mr. Boren was "acting in any capacity in representing him in any post-conviction proceedings" and, if so, asking Mr. Boren to "set forth the grounds for post-conviction relief, " along with his "personal representation that none of those grounds were raised on appeal." Mr. Boren responded by letter dated July 21, 2015, disclosing that he was retained by Mr. Bergeron to investigate his 2013 rape convictions to determine if there were any valid claims for post-conviction relief and that he was seeking access to files of the St. Landry Parish District Attorney's Office regarding that prosecution. Mr. Boren was thereafter notified by Mr. Richard's July 24, 2015 letter that his "response does not meet the requirements previously cited in our response letter dated July 14, 2015. Therefore, your request is DENIED." (Emphasis original.)

         Mr. Boren then filed a "Petition for Writ of Mandamus and Review" on August 10, 2015, in the Twenty-Seventh Judicial District Court, pursuant to La. Const. Art. XII, § 3, La. C.C.P. arts. 3862-63, and La. R.S. 44:35. Mr. Boren also sought to collect from the defendant/custodian attorney fees, costs, and damages, under La. R.S. 44:35, for their failure to comply with his public records request.

         Following an August 31, 2015 hearing, the district court denied Mr. Boren's petition for a writ of mandamus. A subsequent writ application to the appellate court was denied. Boren v. Taylor, 15-0911 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/18/15) (unpublished). On Mr. Boren's application to this court, we granted the writ and remanded to the appellate court for briefing, argument, and full opinion. Boren v. Taylor, 15-2322 (La. 3/14/16) (unpublished writ action). On remand, the appellate court affirmed the district court ruling. Boren v. Taylor, 15-0911 (La.App. 3 Cir. 10/26/16), 206 So.3d 892. Thereafter, this court granted the plaintiff's writ application. Boren v. Taylor, 16-2078 (La. 1/23/17), 215 So.3d 262.

         Mr. Boren asks this court to reverse the appellate court decision, contending, in essence: that the provisions of La. R.S. 44:31.1 apply only to an incarcerated individual, not to an attorney; that La. R.S. 44:31.1 should be strictly construed so as not to diminish his right of access to public records because of his attorney-client relationship with an incarcerated individual; that the public records custodian (here, the district attorney) exceeded his authority to question a person seeking public records access beyond that allowed by La. R.S. 44:32(A); and that he is entitled to an award of attorney fees, costs, and damages, pursuant to La. R.S. 44:35.

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         The public's right to access public records is granted by Louisiana Constitution, Article XII, Section 3, which 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."

         The legislature, by enacting the Public Records Law, La. R.S. 44:1 et seq., sought to guarantee, in the most expansive and unrestricted way possible, the right of the public to inspect and reproduce those records that the law deems public. See Landis v. Moreau, 00-1157, p. 4 (La. 2/21/01), 779 So.2d 691, 694-95; Title Research Corporation v. Rausch, 450 So.2d 933, 937 (La. 1984). In implementation of this right, La. R.S. 44:31(A) states, "Providing access to public records is a responsibility and duty of the appointive or elective office of a custodian and his employees." Further, "any person of the age of majority may inspect, copy, or reproduce any public record, " except "as otherwise specifically provided by law." La. R.S. 44:31(B). A public records custodian must "present any public record to any person of the age of majority who so requests, " and the custodian "shall make no inquiry of any person who applies for a public record, except an inquiry as to the age and identification of the person . . . ." La. R.S. 44:32(A).

         The legislature has further recognized that "it is essential to the operation of a democratic government that the people be made aware of all exceptions, exemptions, and limitations to the laws pertaining to public records." La. R.S. 44:4.1(A). In order to foster the people's awareness, the legislature declared that "all exceptions, exemptions, and limitations to the laws pertaining to public records shall be provided for in [the Public Records Law] or the Constitution of Louisiana." Id. Any exception, exemption, and limitation to the laws pertaining to public records not provided for in the Public Records Law or in the Constitution of Louisiana has no effect. Id.

         Thus, the Public Records Law must be construed liberally in favor of free and unrestricted access to public documents, and access to public records can be denied only when a law specifically and unequivocally provides otherwise. Title Research Corporation v. Rausch, 450 So.2d at 937. See also DeSalvo v. State, 624 So.2d 897, 902 (La. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1117, 114 S.Ct. 1067, 127 L.Ed.2d 386 (1994); Landis v. Moreau, 779 So.2d at 695. Whenever there is 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 to see; to allow otherwise would be an improper and arbitrary restriction on the public's constitutional rights. In re Matter Under Investigation, 07-1853, p. 25 (La. 7/1/09), 15 So.3d 972, 989; Capital City Press v. East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council, 96-1979, p. 4 (La. 7/1/97), 696 So.2d 562, 564; Title Research Corporation v. Rausch, 450 So.2d at 936.

         In this case, Mr. Boren's public records request was denied by the defendant/custodian on the basis of the exception set ...


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