Court of Appeals: Village of Grafton Must Pay Former Trustee Attorney Fees in Records Case
Overrules lower court decision denying fees despite ordering Village to turn over 145 pages of records
Today, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that the Village of Grafton must pay former trustee Susan Meinecke’s attorney fees, costs, and statutory damages in a records lawsuit. In 2019, Meinecke sued Grafton seeking numerous records the Village had refused to turn over related to issues with its fire department. The Ozaukee County Circuit Court found that the Village had unlawfully withheld 145 pages of records under a claimed attorney-client privilege. But even when the Village turned over those records, the court refused to award Meinecke her attorney fees and court costs as required by Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.
With the help of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, Meinecke appealed that decision to the District II Court of Appeals. That court released a strong opinion reversing the circuit court, ruling that a record requester “prevails in substantial part” and is entitled to fees and costs if a court orders any amount of records released. From the opinion: “Our review of Wisconsin’s public records statute and case law leads us to conclude that a mandamus litigant has prevailed in substantial part, and thus is entitled to fees, when the requester obtains access to improperly withheld public records through a judicial order.” The court also said that “fees are available even when the requester receives a single record, or even only part of a record.”
The court specifically rejected the Village’s arguments and the circuit court’s conclusions that Meinecke did not prevail because:
she only received some of the records she sought;
the records she obtained did not conclusively prove her underlying theory of official misconduct;
Grafton officials did not act in “wanton disregard” of the Open Records Law; or
that they thought Meinecke had “ulterior motives” in seeking the records.
None of those considerations were relevant. All that mattered was that the court ordered the Village to turn over records that had been unlawfully withheld.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for government transparency advocates across Wisconsin,” said Tom Kamenick, President and Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project. “Having this binding precedent will hopefully prevent circuit courts from making similar mistakes in the future, and should encourage citizens to hold public officials accountable to the law.”
The Court of Appeals ordered the case remanded to the Circuit Court, with directions to determine an appropriate award of reasonable attorney fees, court costs, and statutory damages.