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January 22, 2024

A government entity has been ordered to pay legal expenses after refusing to comply with an open records request. 

AUGUSTA – The Kennebec County Superior Court awarded roughly $130,000 in attorney fees, costs, and expenses to the Human Rights Defense Center, a client of the ACLU of Maine. The order, signed January 16 and received today, follows a Law Court opinion affirming that a government organization was so “deceptive and abusive” when it refused to comply with a records request that it constituted a “bad faith” violation of the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

“When government actors hide public records, they will pay the price,” said ACLU of Maine Legal Director Carol Garvan. “Today’s order proves that Maine’s open records laws have teeth. The documents in this case are public, and there is a strong public interest in understanding the use of taxpayer dollars and settlements stemming from allegations of misconduct in Maine jails. These documents should have been released in 2021 when they were requested.”

“The fact that this amount of time was required to resolve this matter is ridiculous,” Justice Daniel I. Billings wrote in a December order granting the ACLU of Maine’s request for fees. “However, the blame for this rests squarely with the Defendant. Given the intransigence of the Defendant, and the public interest at stake, the number of hours expended was reasonable.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine represented the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center in the case, appealing a FOAA denial by the Maine County Commissioners’ Association Self-Funded Risk Management Pool, a government entity responsible for covering the costs of legal settlements. The bad faith ruling marked the first time the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found a government entity acted in bad faith when denying a records request. The ruling also clarified that when government actors dishonestly respond to a records request, those actions can constitute bad faith.

Read the Court's December and January orders in the PDFs below or here and here.