A House bill would require judges to make specific findings before they can award attorney fees in public records lawsuits.
State Rep. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican and lawyer, filed the measure (HB 163) on Wednesday.
It would require a judge to determine that a public agency “unlawfully refused to permit a public record to be inspected or copied” and that the complainant “provided written notice identifying the public record request to the agency’s custodian … at least five business days before filing the civil action.”
The bill also says attorney fees can’t be awarded if the court finds “the request to inspect or copy the public record was made primarily to harass the agency.”
Burgess’ bill follows a similar bill (SB 80) filed by state Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican and also a lawyer, that changes the word “shall” to “may” regarding courts awarding legal fees when an “agency (has) unlawfully refused to permit a public record … to be inspected or copied.”
Steube backed a version of the bill last session as a state representative. It passed the Senate unanimously but died in the House.
This year’s bill would require a “complainant (to) provide written notice of the public records request to the agency’s custodian of public records at least 5 business days before” suing, like Burgess’. Records requests are not normally mandated to be in writing.
The idea is to cut down on the number of “frivolous” lawsuits at taxpayer expense by eliminating guaranteed attorney fees in cases where public officials made an honest mistake, bill advocates – including the Florida League of Cities – have said.
Open government watchdogs, such as the First Amendment Foundation, have countered that the bill would instead affect legitimate actions against local governments and state agencies that unreasonably refuse to respond to record requests.