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

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

February 6, 2019

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

          APPEAL FROM CIVIL DISTRICT COURT, ORLEANS PARISH NO. 2015-07003, DIVISION "1" Honorable Ethel Simms Julien, Judge

          Vincent J. Booth BOOTH & BOOTH, APLC COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT

          Timothy M. Brinks Christopher James Kane Jaimme' A. Collins ADAMS & REESE LLP COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE

          Court composed of Chief Judge James F. McKay, III, Judge Daniel L. Dysart, Judge Regina Bartholomew-Woods

          REGINA BARTHOLOMEW-WOODS JUDGE

         New Orleans Bulldog Society ("NOBR") appeals the judgment of the trial court, granting, in part, and denying, in part, its Motion to Assess Attorney's Fees and Penalties, and granting, in part, and denying, in part, Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("LSPCA") Motion for Declaratory Judgment. The trial court awarded NOBR $5, 000.00 in attorney's fees and $1, 687.50 in costs, and denied NOBR's request for penalties. For the reasons that follow, we amend, in part, and affirm as amended, the judgment rendered by the trial court.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         NOBR is a Louisiana nonprofit corporation dedicated to the rescue and advocacy of dog welfare in the Greater New Orleans area. In an effort to evaluate how to best limit the number of dogs euthanized annually, NOBR sought related information from LSPCA. LSPCA is a private non-profit organization that is dedicated to the welfare of animals in Louisiana, and is classified by the Internal Revenue Service as a private charitable 501(c)(3). LSPCA maintains a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement ("CEA") with the City of New Orleans ("the City") to provide animal control services, as required by Chapter 18 of the City of New Orleans Code of Ordinances.

         Because of LSPCA's CEA with the City, NOBR submitted an itemized public records request to the City seeking information regarding the dogs euthanized by LSPCA, of which a copy was submitted to LSPCA. Its request was as follows:

Requests 1-32 sought specific information as to the LSPCA definitions, policies, procedures, and outcomes related to the evaluation, adoption, and/or euthanasia of surrendered/stray animals in control of LSPCA; Requests 33-34 related specifically to an [sic] Cane Corso named Leatrice euthanized by the LSPCA in December 2014; Request 35 requested documents related to the "staff hours spent by LSPCA Animal Control Officers travelling, waiting, and appearing in court in Orleans Parish; and Requests 36-37 sought documents and emails regarding the Bulldog Rescue's "Animal Court" proposal to streamline animal-related cases before the municipal court in New Orleans.

New Orleans Bulldog Society v. LSPCA, 2015-1351, p. 2 (La.App. 4 Cir. 9/17/16), 200 So.3d 996, 998.

         The City Attorney's Office responded to the request stating that the City was not the custodian of the requested records, and that such request should be sent directly to LSPCA. Accordingly, NOBR submitted its itemized public records request directly to LSPCA. LSPCA responded to the request asserting it was not a "public body;" therefore, it was not subject to the Public Records Law ("PRL"). Ann Zorilla ("Ms. Zorilla"), Chief Executive Officer of LSPCA, asserted that the only required reporting was delineated in the CEA between LSPCA and the City. Ms. Zorilla also asserted LSPCA had fulfilled the reporting requirements, and the reports were available through the City Attorney's Office.

         In response to LSPCA's contest, NOBR filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the trial court, seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief pursuant to the PRL. LSPCA, in return, filed exceptions of unauthorized use of summary proceedings and no cause of action, requesting NOBR's petition be dismissed with prejudice. LSPCA supported the exceptions with an affidavit executed by Ms. Zorilla and a copy of the CEA.

         The trial court orally granted LSPCA's motion to dismiss the NOBR's petition for writ of mandamus. The trial court found that LSPCA was not a quasi-public entity under the PRL and, even assuming that LSPCA was a quasi-public entity, it had fulfilled all reporting obligations under the PRL by complying with the requirements delineated in the CEA.

         NOBR subsequently filed a devolutive appeal in this Court. This Court reversed the trial court, holding that LSPCA was subject to the PRL. This Court reasoned that LSPCA acted as an "instrumentality to a municipality" in performing certain mandated municipal services as outlined in the CEA. New Orleans Bulldog Society, 2015-1351, p.10, 200 So.3d at 1002. This Court further stated the PRL cannot be circumscribed by contract, and LSPCA's "limited contractual reporting requirements in the CEA is not equivalent of a 'public record' as defined [sic] La. Rev.Stat. 44:1(A)(2)(a), and, as such, the LSPCA's entity's compliance with its contractual reporting requirement to the City does not satisfy its obligations under the Public Records Law;" and LSPCA "has offered no reason (beyond its failed argument that it is not subject to the Public Records Law) for refusing to provide public access to its records." Id., 2015-1351, pp. 11-12, 200 So.3d at 1002-03.

         LSPCA then filed a Writ of Certiorari to the Louisiana Supreme Court, wherein the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed this Court, finding that LSPCA acts as an instrumentality of a municipality. The Louisiana Supreme Court reasoned that LSPCA acts "under the color of City authority through its enforcement of Chapter 18 infractions, issuance of citations, and appearance in court on related matters of animal control." New Orleans Bulldog Society v. LSPCA, 2016-1809, p. 8 (La. 5/3/17) 222 So.3d 679, 685. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed this Court in finding that LSPCA's contractual reporting requirements did not constitute compliance with the PRL. New Orleans Bulldog Society, 2016-1809, p. 12, 222 So.3d at 687. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court held that LSPCA's responses should be limited only to documents that pertain to "LSPCA's functions, duties, and responsibilities to enforce Chapter 18 of the Municipal Code as outlined in the CEA." Id., 2016-1809, p. 13, 222 So.3d at 688. The matter was remanded to the trial court for a determination of which documents satisfy this requirement. Id., 2016-1809, p. 14, 222 So.3d at 688.

         Upon remand, counsel for the parties entered into discussions regarding production of the public records. NOBR filed a motion for status conference with the trial court to determine the next steps pursuant to the Louisiana Supreme Court's ruling. A telephone status conference was held, at which time the trial court ordered LSPCA to produce all uncontested documents. Accordingly, LSPCA produced documents responsive to NOBR's public records request. In its response, LSPCA raised objections to several of the requests. LSPCA objected to some of the requests based upon veterinary privilege.[1] It also raised objections that some requests were unrelated to LSPCA's duties and responsibilities, as outlined in the CEA with the City, and that the specificity of other requests were unsearchable fields within its database and reports. Despite these objections, LSPCA stated it would produce the documents if the trial court issued a protective order. NOBR, however, provided a letter to LSPCA stating it accepted the responses to its public records request; thus, LSPCA's objections were never litigated. In its acceptance letter, NOBR also provided LSPCA with all relevant billing information regarding attorney's fees associated with the public records requests and the ensuing litigation. LSPCA filed a Motion for Declaratory Judgment asking the trial court to make a determination regarding attorney's fees. NOBR, in response, filed a Motion to Assess Fees, Costs, and Penalties, and submitted a statement for a total of sum of $24, 181.25, which represented $22, 493.75 in attorney's fees and $1, 687.50 in court costs.

         A hearing was held in the trial court on the issue of attorney's fees. The trial court ruled that NOBR prevailed, in part, and awarded $5, 000.00 in attorney's fees and $1, 687.50 in costs. In the judgment, the trial court cited the Louisiana Supreme Court's reasoning that LSPCA is required to disclose all documents relevant to its duties and responsibilities outlined in the CEA with the City. The trial court also referenced a "white paper"[2] in finding that the case was an expansion of the PRL to private entities that previously may not have been considered public entities under the law. The trial court alluded to factors enumerated by the Louisiana Supreme Court in State, Department of Transportation and Development v. Williamson, 597 So.2d 439 (La. 1992), to determine a reasonable award of attorney's fees. The trial court also reviewed the itemized time sheets and statement of costs submitted by NOBR. Following the judgment, NOBR filed this appeal in which it asserts four assignments of error; we, however, will only address three of the assignments of error.[3]

         STANDARD ...


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