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Doyle v. City of Burlington Police Department

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 13, 2019

Reed Doyle
v.
City of Burlington Police Department

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division Mary Miles Teachout, J.

          Anthony N.L. Iarrapino of Wilschek Iarrapino Law Office PLLC, and James Diaz and Lia Ernst of ACLU Foundation of Vermont, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Eileen M. Blackwood and Justin St. James, Office of City Attorney, Burlington, for Defendant-Appellee.

          Jennifer Duggan and Elena Mihaly, Conservation Law Foundation, and Jamey Fidel and Jon Groveman, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Montpelier, for Amici Curiae Conservation Law Foundation and Vermont Natural Resources Council.

          David Putter and Christopher D. Winters, Montpelier, for Amicus Curiae Jim Condos, Secretary of State of the State of Vermont.

          Daniel P. Richardson and Stephen F. Coteus of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, Montpelier, and Timothy Cornell and Cornell Dolan, Boston, Massachusetts, for Amici Curiae Vermont Journalism Trust, New England First Amendment Coalition, and Vermont Press Association.

          Carl Andeer, Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Montpelier, for Amicus Curiae Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Eaton and Carroll, JJ., and Burgess, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

          REIBER, C.J.

         ¶ 1. Reed Doyle appeals the trial court's denial of his motion for partial judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). In his motion, plaintiff argued that the Burlington Police Department (BPD) unlawfully withheld public records in violation of the Public Records Act (PRA) when it charged a fee for costs that would be incurred by complying with his request. Based on the plain language of the PRA, we hold that the BPD cannot charge for staff time spent in complying with requests to inspect public records. Accordingly, we reverse.

         ¶ 2. Plaintiff stated the following facts in his complaint. Plaintiff witnessed an incident involving BPD officers in a public park. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff submitted a citizen's complaint form to the BPD to voice concerns about alleged officer misconduct and unreasonable use of force during the incident. Plaintiff subsequently requested to inspect body camera footage, among other records, related to the incident. The BPD denied his request. Plaintiff appealed the denial to BPD Chief Brandon del Pozo. In his response to the appeal, Chief del Pozo characterized plaintiff's request as "seeking to inspect" records. He stated that, pursuant to statute, the BPD could only produce a heavily redacted form of the requested records, and the staff time to review and redact the records would cost plaintiff several hundred dollars.[1] Chief del Pozo also informed plaintiff that he must pay a deposit before the BPD would begin reviewing and redacting the requested records.

         ¶ 3. After filing a complaint in the civil division against the BPD, plaintiff moved for a partial judgment on the pleadings. He argued that the BPD violated the PRA when it failed to provide the requested records for inspection free of charge. The trial court denied plaintiff's motion. Plaintiff timely appealed.

         ¶ 4. "When reviewing a denial of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the issue before the Court is whether the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the pleadings." Fercenia v. Guiduli, 2003 VT 50, ¶ 6, 175 Vt. 541, 830 A.2d 55 (mem.). "[W]e accept as true all factual allegations contained in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those allegations. . . . We . . . focus our analysis on the court's conclusions of law, which we review de novo." Flint v. Dep't of Labor, 2017 VT 89, ¶ 3, 205 Vt. 558, 177 A.3d 1080 (quotation omitted).

         ¶ 5. The parties dispute whether the PRA authorizes state agencies to charge and collect fees for staff time spent complying with requests to inspect public records. This Court applies "a nondeferential and plenary standard of review to issues of statutory interpretation." Vt. Human Rights Comm'n v. Agency of Transp., 2012 VT 88, ¶ 7, 192 Vt. 552, 60 A.3d 702; see also 1 V.S.A. § 319(a) (directing trial court to review denials of PRA requests de novo). "[O]ur primary goal" when interpreting statutes is "to give effect to the Legislature's intent." Lydy v. Trustaff, Inc., 2013 VT 44, ¶ 6, 194 Vt. 165, 76 A.3d 150. We begin our review with the statute's plain meaning. People's United Bank, NA v. Alana Provencale, Inc., 2018 VT 46, ¶ 8, 207 Vt. 362, 189 A.3d 71. "If the statute is unambiguous and its words have plain ...


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