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Muhammad v. Babin

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

March 14, 2018

ABDULLAH MUHAMMAD A/K/A KIRK SPENCER
v.
RICKY BABIN, DISTRICT ATTORNEY

          ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF ST. JAMES, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 36, 508, DIVISION "C" HONORABLE KATHERINE TESS STROMBERG, JUDGE PRESIDING

          PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT, ABDULLAH MUHAMMAD A/K/A KIRK SPENCER In Proper Person

          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Fredericka Homberg Wicker, and Robert A. Chaisson

          CHEHARDY, C.J.

         This appeal arises in the course of litigation instituted by plaintiff, Abdullah Muhammad a/k/a Kirk Spencer, to obtain records from the St. James Parish District Attorney's Office relating to his 1992 first degree murder conviction. For the reasons fully discussed herein, we reverse the district court's judgment as amended June 13, 2017, sustaining the State's exception of no right of action.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Plaintiff is serving a sentence of life imprisonment for his 1992 conviction of first degree murder. His conviction and sentence were affirmed by this Court on direct appeal, see State v. Spencer, 93-571 (La.App. 5 Cir. 1/25/94), 631 So.2d 1363, and became final in 1995 when the Louisiana Supreme Court declined certiorari review. See State v. Spencer, 94-488 (La. 2/3/95), 649 So.2d 400. Since then, plaintiff has continued to challenge his conviction and sentence. In 2004, he sent correspondence to the St. James Parish District Attorney's Office requesting copies of the District Attorney's files in Docket Numbers 1695 and 1696.[2] On July 7, 2004, Assistant District Attorney Anthony T. Marshall ("A.D.A. Marshall") sent plaintiff a letter notifying him that the cost of copying his file was $182.00. On September 23, 2004, A.D.A. Marshall sent plaintiff a second letter which read, "Enclosed is the copy of the District Attorney's file as you requested."

         On February 3, 2005, plaintiff filed a "Motion to Compel" production of the District Attorney's file in Docket No. 1695, alleging that he had paid the District Attorney for a copy of the files in Docket Nos. 1695 and 1696, but did not receive a copy of the file in Docket No. 1695. Plaintiff filed this motion to compel in the Twenty-Third Judicial District Court under Docket No. 1695. On February 3, 2005, the district court denied this motion without reasons. Plaintiff sought supervisory review of that denial, and on March 4, 2005, this Court denied plaintiff's writ "on the presentation." State of Louisiana ex rel. Abdullah Muhammad v. Burl Cain, 05-249 (La.App. 5 Cir. 3/4/05) (unpublished writ disposition).

         Several years later, on or about May 22, 2013, plaintiff's counsel, Michael J. Rocks, sent a public records request via certified mail to Ricky Babin, District Attorney for the Twenty-Third Judicial District, requesting the opportunity to inspect and copy all of the District Attorney's records related to plaintiff's criminal case in Docket No. 1695. The return receipt indicates that Mr. Rocks' letter was received on May 31, 2013. On or about June 27, 2013, Mr. Rocks sent a second request via certified mail. The return receipt on the second certified letter indicates that the letter was unclaimed. On August 2, 2013, Mr. Rocks sent a third and final request via certified mail. The return receipt on this final letter reflects that it was received, though the date of receipt is illegible.

         With no response forthcoming, on July 14, 2014, plaintiff filed a "Petition for Writ of Mandamus under the Louisiana Public Records Act, " naming as defendants the Office of the District Attorney for the Parish of St. James and District Attorney Ricky Babin, in his official capacity as custodian of records (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the District Attorney"). In this petition, plaintiff alleged that he and his attorneys had repeatedly requested from the District Attorney copies of the case files from his first degree murder proceeding and that the District Attorney had failed to respond to the requests. Plaintiff's petition further alleged that, pursuant to the Public Records Law, the custodian of records bore the burden of establishing the current location of the requested records, the last known location of the requested records, or the efforts which had been made to attempt to locate the requested records, and that the District Attorney had given no such information to plaintiff. Accordingly, plaintiff requested that the district court issue a writ of mandamus ordering the District Attorney to provide the records to plaintiff and award attorney's fees and court costs incurred in obtaining the records, as well as other damages and penalties provided by the Public Records Law. Plaintiff attached to his petition the earlier record requests sent by his attorney via certified mail.

         On August 18, 2014, the District Attorney filed an answer to plaintiff's petition, denying the allegations therein, and further asserting that, under La. R.S. 44:31.1, plaintiff was not a "person" entitled to the requested records because he is in custody after sentence following a felony conviction and has exhausted his appellate remedies. The District Attorney also alleged that plaintiff had already been provided with a copy of the records, citing the September 23, 2004 letter from A.D.A. Marshall, which preceded plaintiff's 2005 motion to compel.

         At the September 24, 2014 hearing on plaintiff's petition, the district court, sua sponte, raised the issue of whether the February 3, 2005 denial of plaintiff's motion to compel precluded plaintiff's petition under the doctrine of res judicata, to which plaintiff's counsel responded in the negative. The District Attorney, without discussing the issue of res judicata, argued that plaintiff was not entitled to the records under La. R.S. 44:31.1, and further stated, "for argument sake, Judge, we don't know if the records still exist. They should have been shredded." At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ordered the District Attorney to produce the records within thirty days to allow the court to conduct an in camera inspection for privileged information, after which, if no privileged information was discovered, the court would give the records to plaintiff.

         Instead of complying with this order and turning over the records to the district court, on October 17, 2014, the District Attorney filed a "Response to Court's Verbal Order of September 24, 2014, " in which the District Attorney raised the exception of res judicata and repeated its argument that plaintiff was not entitled to the records under La. R.S. 44:31.1. The District Attorney further asserted that, pursuant to La. R.S. 44:36(E)(1) and the Records Retention Schedule of the District Attorney's Office, files of major felony criminal cases may be destroyed five years from the end of the calendar year in which a defendant's conviction and sentence become final, and that after a diligent search the District Attorney had been unable to locate any of plaintiff's requested records.

         On November 26, 2014, plaintiff filed a "Rule for Contempt for Failure to Comply with Court Order, and Motion to Strike." In his rule for contempt, plaintiff alleged that the District Attorney failed to timely comply with the district court's order to produce the records, that the District Attorney failed to provide a definitive statement denying that the records were in its custody, and that the District Attorney failed to provide a "detailed, written certification . . . stating the reason for the absence of the records from their custody, " as required by La. R.S. 44:34. Wherefore, plaintiff urged the court to find the District Attorney guilty of contempt and order the District Attorney to produce the records in compliance with the district court's order.

         The court minutes reflect that at the February 24, 2015 hearing on plaintiff's rule for contempt, the district court ordered the District Attorney to provide a certificate to the court within thirty days detailing where and when the records were destroyed. On April 7, 2015, plaintiff filed a "Motion to Reset Plaintiff's Rule for Contempt and Motion to Strike, " wherein he alleged that the District Attorney failed to provide the district court with a certificate detailing the destruction of the records as ordered by the court and repeated his request that the court adjudge the District Attorney guilty of contempt and order production of the documents or production of the certificate detailing destruction of plaintiff's records. On April 15, 2015, the District Attorney filed a "Motion to Re-set Hearing, " asserting that the court had not ruled on the exception of res judicata raised in the District Attorney's October 17, 2014 "Response to Court's Order, " and requesting the court schedule a hearing on the exception.

         The court scheduled a hearing on plaintiff's rule for contempt and the District Attorney's exception of res judicata for July 28, 2015, and, pursuant to the court's order, both parties filed memoranda in support of their positions regarding the exception of res judicata. In its supporting memorandum and at the hearing, the District Attorney argued that the denial of plaintiff's motion to compel in 2005 precluded plaintiff's mandamus action under the doctrine of res judicata, because the denial of the motion was a valid and final judgment, the parties to the two actions are the same, the cause of action asserted in plaintiff's public records request existed at the time plaintiff filed his motion to compel, and the cause of action asserted in plaintiff's public records request arose out of the transaction or occurrence that was the subject matter of the motion to compel.

         In response, plaintiff argued that the parties to the two actions are not the same, because plaintiff's motion to compel named A.D.A. Marshall as a defendant, whereas, in the instant action, the District Attorney, in his capacity as custodian of records, and the Office of the District Attorney are named as defendants. Plaintiff further argued that the cause of action asserted in plaintiff's petition did not exist at the time of the earlier litigation, because plaintiff's motion to compel was provoked by A.D.A. Marshall's failure to provide plaintiff with the case files for which he had paid, whereas plaintiff's petition was filed as a result of the District Attorney's failure to respond to plaintiff's public records requests. Lastly, plaintiff argued that the transaction or occurrence that gave rise to plaintiff's petition is not the same as that which gave rise to plaintiff's motion to compel, because the request for copies of his case files made in 2004 was a different transaction than plaintiff's public records requests made in 2013.

          After hearing arguments from both sides, the court took the matter under advisement. On September 14, 2015, the court issued a written judgment with incorporated reasons, granting the District Attorney's exception of res judicata and denying plaintiff access to the records under La. R.S. 44:31.1. This judgment did not discuss plaintiff's rule for contempt.

         Plaintiff timely appealed, arguing that the District Attorney erred in refusing to provide the public records to plaintiff, and that the district court erred in refusing to enforce its order to produce the public records for an in camera inspection and its order to provide certification detailing the alleged destruction of the public records.

         On appeal, this Court found that the district court erred in sustaining the District Attorney's exception of res judicata. See Muhammad v. Office of the DA for St. James, 16-9 (La.App. 5 Cir. 4/27/16), 191 So.3d 1149, 1155-56. Noting the four prerequisites for the application of res judicata-(1) the parties must be identical in both suits, or in privity; (2) the prior judgment must have been rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (3) there must be a final judgment on the merits; and (4) the same claim or cause of action must be ...


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