Lawsuit over public records via email

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has agreed to let both the Tennessee School Boards Association and the Tennessee Risk Management Trust weigh in on an appeal in a Sumner County open records lawsuit, reports The Tennessean.

Sumner County Judge Dee David Gay ruled in November that the Sumner County Board of Education violated the Tennessee Public Records Act by denying a records request Joelton resident Ken Jakes made via email and over the telephone. In his ruling, Gay said the school system’s policy of only accepting records requests via U.S. mail or in person was too restrictive for citizens, and ordered the board to craft a new public records policy.

School board members voted unanimously in December to appeal Gay’s ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and enacted a new policy in March that includes the use of a dedicated phone line for public records requests.

The TSBA, an organization comprised of 141 school districts from across the state, filed a motion Aug. 3 requesting permission to both file a brief on behalf of the Sumner County Board of Education as well as address the court during oral arguments.

“… the case is one that affects the rights and responsibilities of school systems in their capacity as a local government subject to Tennessee’s open records laws,” the TSBA said in its court filing. “The issue of interpretation of these laws is statewide in principle and has the potential to affect not only how school systems respond to open records requests but also how local governments respond to open records requests.”

The Tennessee Risk Management Trust, a member-owned insurance trust for public entities, requested Aug. 19 to also file an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief in the case. The briefs are often a way for someone not a party to a case to offer advice to the court in a decision likely to hold broader implications than just for the two parties arguing the case.

“The ruling of the trial court has a far-reaching and potentially detrimental effect on the Trust’s members,” TRMT attorneys said in the court filing. The document also says that the trust’s members include 60 counties, 102 school systems and 40 municipalities and other governmental entities within Tennessee. The Sumner County Board of Education is not a member of the trust, according to spokesman Jeremy Johnson.

The appeals court granted this week both organizations’ requests to file the briefs. However, neither group will be allowed to make oral arguments in the case. A court date has not yet been set.