The University of Missouri lost a major Sunshine Law case Friday involving records sought by an animal rights group.
Circuit Judge Jeff Harris ruled the university violated the law by estimating it would cost more than $82,000 to fulfill the records request.
In his ruling, Harris ordered the university to pay a $1,000 fine for a “knowing” violation of the law and the attorneys’ fees for the case filed by the Beagle Freedom Project in May 2016 and tried by Harris in July.
“Defendants’ cost estimate was contrary to the dual objectives of liberal construction and lowest cost mandated by the Open Records Act,” Harris wrote. “After hearing the evidence, the court finds that there is nothing so complex, unique or burdensome about the information sought that would require a requestor to pay in excess of $450 to just to get the records for a single dog or cat.”
The biggest share of the estimate — the largest ever delivered by the university to anyone seeking its public records — was for five hours searching records for each of 179 dogs and cats by the principal investigators for research using the animals. Harris noted that the principal investigators were all highly paid veterinarians and Phds, with salaries ranging from $109,000 to $211,000 per year.
There may have been a need for the principal investigators to spend some time searching for records, but the university did not test what that time was before issuing the estimate, Harris noted.
“Unless a principal investigator maintained records in a Byzantine fashion — contrary to both the welfare of the animal and not contemplated by federal regulation — it is hard to fathom that the estimates from principal investigators had a substantial basis in actual practice,” Harris wrote.
Dan Kolde, a St. Louis attorney who worked on the case, said Saturday morning that Beagle Freedom Project feels vindicated by the court ruling.
“We have been saying this all along, that this number was unreasonable and designed to thwart Beagle Freedom Project’s attempts to tell the public about the lives and fates of these animals,” Kolde said.
MU continued to defend its Sunshine Law practices and the estimate in a statement issued Saturday.
“The University of Missouri is committed to being transparent and in compliance of the law,” spokesman Christian Basi wrote. “We respond to nearly 700 Sunshine requests per year and devote significant resources to live up to the requirements of the Sunshine Law.
“We respectfully disagree that the university violated those requirements. We respect the court and are reviewing the decision in detail and will determine our options following that review.”
The case began in 2015 when Beagle Freedom Project began sending records requests for individual animals to MU and other research universities that use dogs and cats.
When MU responded with estimates ranging from $400 to $700 for each animal, the organization asked for the records for all 179 animals it had identified as in university hands.
The lawsuit was filed after the university responded with an estimate of $82,222 for the records.
The internal university communications produced as evidence showed MU was suspicious of the Beagle Freedom Project’s objectives and confident the high estimates would dissuade the organization and the individuals from pursuing their request, Harris noted.
Custodian of Records Paula Barrett wrote to Lon Dixon of the Office of Animal Resources to not spend any time actually retrieving records because ‘these animal rights groups often do not want to put out the money ...’,” Harris noted.
Barrett also complained to Dixon that the Beagle Freedom Project had “probably duped (the individual requestors) into bother me by providing the form in a self-addressed envelope which they can fill out thinking they are getting the records for a dog they can adopt.”
That hostility to the request imposed an additional burden to make sure the estimate was accurate, Harris wrote.
“Moreover, knowing there was mutual animus or at least suspicion between the principal investigators and plaintiff — one principal investigator questioned whether persons associated with plaintiff were ‘criminals,’ for example ... — it was incumbent upon defendants to verify the accuracy of principal investigators’ cost estimates to ensure that the estimates resulted in the lowest cost,” he wrote.
MU has had difficulties with other animal rights groups in recent years and in June 2017 announced efforts to increase adoptions. Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! in June 2016 asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fine MU for the death of a dachshund puppy and two boars. The department did not fine the university, but did issue a warning to do a better job securing animals in their pens.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has pressured the university to stop using pigs in medical research. And in August, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called MU research using rats climbing ladders with weights tied to their tails an “insult to science” and “cruel nonsense.”
The Open Meetings and Records Act, commonly known as the Sunshine Law, sets the standards for discussion of public issues and disclosure of government records. It requires public records to be open for inspection during business hours at no cost. It allows 10 cents per page charge for copying paper records, as well as charges to search for and retrieve public records not immediately available.
The law directs government agencies to interpret its provisions liberally — in favor of disclosure — and to use the lowest-paid employees capable of performing records searches to be used to minimize costs.
In lawsuits to enforce the act, a judge finding a violation must decide if it is “knowing” or “purposeful.” A knowing violation carries a $1,000 fine and the judge can order the public body to pay attorney fees. A purposeful violation carries a $5,000 fine and a requirement that attorney fees be paid.
“Defendants’ unjustified $82,222 cost estimate blocked plaintiff from getting the requested documents, leaving plaintiff no recourse except to file this lawsuit,” Harris wrote in awarding attorney fees. “Plaintiff sought public records generated by government employees in taxpayer-funded laboratories. The Open Records Act requires a liberal construction and requires using employees resulting in the lowest cost to the requestor. The cost estimate in this case was tantamount to a denial of the request.”
Harris also cited evidence presented at trial that the university never tested the estimate that a principal investigator would need five hours to examine the records for each dog and cat.
After the lawsuit was filed, the university did test the estimate and, for one excluding principal investigators entirely, found it could have fulfilled the request for $8,950, or $50 per animal, he noted.
Harris also ruled that the costs for others involved in responding to the request — the Office of Animal Resources and Animal Care and Quality Assurance — were also excessive. While the resources office estimate was based on two hours per animal, testimony showed that if the same material was sought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which regulates research animal welfare — it would take about two hours total to gather it.
For the quality assurance office, the estimate of one hour per animal was far more than necessary and the employee cost assigned was not the lowest possible, Harris ruled.
“While an estimate is inherently inexact, there is nonetheless an obligation on the part of government to make a diligent effort to accurately calculate costs to avoid creating a roadblock to disclosure,” Harris wrote.