An Ozaukee County village must pay at least part of its former trustee’s attorney fees, costs and statutory damages in an open-records lawsuit, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday.
Susan Meinecke sued the village of Grafton in 2019 after she had filed several public-records requests with village officials related to issues with its fire department. She received many, but not all, of the requested documents, and subsequently filed a mandamus action.
Ozaukee County Circuit Court Judge Sandy Williams ordered the village to release 145 pages of records, but she did not award attorney fees and court costs to Meinecke. Among the judge’s reasons for denying the request for fees were Meineke did not gain access to all of the records she wanted and village officials had not acted with wanton disregard of the public-records law.
Meinecke and the Wisconsin Transparency Project appealed the decision to the District II Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel reversed the circuit court on Wednesday, finding that several provisions of the public-records statute support awarding fees to those who prevail by court order, even if they don’t obtain access to all requested documents.
“Our review of Wisconsin’s public records statute and case law leads us to conclude that a mandamus litigant has prevailed in substantial part, and thus is entitled to fees, when the requester obtains access to improperly withheld public records through a judicial order,” the opinion said
The judges noted that although Meineke prevailed in substantial part, that didn’t necessarily amount to a blanket order for the circuit court to award all of her attorney fees, costs and damages. Instead, they directed the circuit court to apply the lodestar methodology on remand to determine reasonable fees and allowed the judge to consider the totality of Meineke’s success when calculating fees.
Tom Kamenick, president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, called the ruling a victory. He said he hopes having this binding precedent will prevent circuit courts from making similar mistakes in the future and encourage citizens to hold public officials accountable to the law.
The attorneys for the Grafton village officials named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Follow @WLJReporter