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Missouri’s Sunshine Law overrides confidentiality clause in settlement agreement and advice of counsel


On advice of its attorney, the Robinwood South Community Improvement District refused to provide a copy of a settlement agreement to John P. Strake, a member of the public who requested it.  Strake sued and filed a motion for summary judgment, stating that there was no fact question regarding whether the settlement agreement (relating to a personal injury suit) was a public record; Strake also wanted the imposition of a civil penalty and the recovery of his costs and attorney fees.

On November 10, 2015, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court in Strake v Robinwood West Community Improvement District held that the District’s reliance on its attorney’s advice to not disclose the settlement agreement did not shield the District from being held liable for knowing and purposeful violations of the Sunshine Law.

The trial judge in St. Louis County ordered the District to provide a copy of the settlement agreement. But the trial judge also entered a judgment in favor of the District, denying the civil penalty, attorney fees and costs that were sought by Strake for the District’s knowing and purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law. The trial judge’s order did not explain why exactly she declined to impose the penalty and award costs and attorney fees, noting only that the District “was relying on the advice of counsel to avoid a lawsuit for breach of contract.”

When a city or other unit of local government enters into a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit,  officials often don’t want to encourage additional claims by disclosing how much was paid to make the plaintiff go away. Most settlement agreements contain a confidentiality clause, which may contain penalties for disclosure of the settlement terms, unless ordered by a court before the settlement is final.

Private corporations are no different, but governmental bodies in Missouri have to follow the Sunshine Law, which is Missouri’s body of statutes that require disclosure of most kinds of public records, as well as requiring that meetings of governmental business be conducted in public meetings. Some kinds of governmental records may properly be closed for a time–such as the details of negotiations to buy or sell real estate or terms of proposed settlement offers in litigation–but these records must eventually become public, unless a court determines that they should remain closed. The Sunshine Law specifies very limited grounds for keeping settlement agreements closed, not allowing courts to conceal the amounts paid by or to the governmental body.

A governmental body that knowingly violates the Sunshine Law may be penalized up to $1,000, plus paying the court costs and attorney fees of the party requesting the records. The penalty is up to $5,000 if the governmental body purposely violates the Sunshine Law, which requires proof that the governmental body had “a conscious design, intent or plan” to violate the law “with awareness of the probable consequences.” The District’s attorney had advised the District that “the most prudent course” was to refuse the request to produce the settlement agreement, while pointing out the statute that required the disclosure of the settlement agreement, apparently fearing that the consequences of breaching the confidentiality clause might be more serious than the consequences of violating the Sunshine Law.

The District’s attorney’s advice provided a basis for the Supreme Court to conclude that the District had actual knowledge of its obligations under the Sunshine Law to give the settlement agreement to Strake and the consequences of not doing so, such that its decision to withhold the settlement agreement was a purposeful violation.

The American Civil Liberties Union provided legal counsel to Strake. Those who criticize the ACLU for many of its activities should recognize that the ACLU’s action in this case was non-partisan and strongly in support in openness in government. The Missouri Press Association also participated in the appeal.

 

 

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