Court nixes fee reduction in public records case

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A district judge wrongly slashed the attorney fees for a New Mexico newspaper that prevailed in a lawsuit to force the release of public records, the state Court of Appeals has ruled in a case involving one the state's key open government laws.

The court ordered Rio Arriba County District Judge Sheri Raphaelson to recalculate the fees for attorneys and other costs incurred by the Rio Grande Sun and one its reporters, who sued the Jemez Mountain School District in 1999 to force the release of records related to embezzlement at the Jemez Mountain Public School District.

Raphaelson awarded attorney fees of $5,000, reducing a request for $30,676. The judge said lawyers were claiming "strikingly high hourly rates" and that "a minimal amount of time should be needed to draft the required pleadings" in the case, given the experience of the newspaper's attorneys.

But the appeals court ruled Thursday that the judge had failed to properly consider billing statements and other information from the newspaper justifying the fees and didn't objectively assess the legal efforts needed to win the public records lawsuit. The court denied post-judgment interest but said the newspaper was entitled to taxes that had to be paid on their attorney fees.

Matthew Hoyt, a lawyer for the newspaper, said Friday that the court's ruling was important for open government.

"A party seeking records needs to have some assurances that if they prevail that they have a reasonable chance of being awarded their fees and costs that were expended based upon some objective criteria," said Hoyt. "Otherwise, whether it be a news media outlet or a citizen or an interest group ... there might be a chilling effect on the use of the public records act because they might not sense whether or not they have a real shot at getting what they had to put into the case, what they had to expend in order to take the issue to court and prevail."

In its ruling, the appeals court acknowledged that the Inspection of Public Records Act "encourages individuals to enforce IPRA on behalf of the public" by requiring that citizens be awarded attorney fees if they prevail in a lawsuit against the government over the withholding of records.

"Without this incentive, prospective plaintiffs might have difficulty pursuing their claims and enforcing IPRA on behalf of the public," the court said.

Hoyt said the ruling was the first by an appellate court in New Mexico to spell out how judges should handle requests for fees under the public records act.

A lawyer for the school district did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on the ruling and whether the district might appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The school district's former business manager pleaded guilty in 2010 to stealing $3.3 million in school funds, but before sentencing died of what authorities said was a suicide.