UPDATES & ANALYSIS

11.21

Supreme Court Affirms Attorney Fee Award Against City

by John Clendenin | November 21, 2011

By John Clendenin

Quoting Justice Louis Brandeis—that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”— the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday clarified the standards for awarding attorney’s fees under the Iowa Freedom of Information Act, Iowa Code Chapter 22. 

The case arose from the following facts.  The City of Riverdale initiated a declaratory judgment against Dr. Allen Diercks and two other Riverdale residents to contest whether the residents were entitled to view security video of a confrontation between them and the City’s mayor.  While initiating the declaratory judgment action to withhold the records from the residents, the City nonetheless made the video available to a number of other individuals, including a newspaper reporter. 

Following sixteen months of litigation and a bench trial, the district court ordered the City to produce the videotape to Diercks and awarded the residents roughly $65,000 in attorney’s fees.  The City appealed the fee award, but not the district court’s order to turn over the videotape.  The Court of Appeals reversed the district court because there was no finding of “bad faith” on the part of the City. 

The Iowa Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.  The Court concluded the district court’s finding that the City violated Iowa Code Chapter 22 by withholding the videotape constituted an implicit rejection of the City’s “good-faith, reasonable delay” safe-harbor defense under Iowa Code section 22.8(4).  No more, according to the Court, was necessary: “To recover fees under section 22.10(3)(c), the requesting party must establish the government body violated the Act; section 22.8(4) in turn provides the government body does not violate the Act if it reasonably delays the citizen’s request by seeking a declaratory judgment in good faith.  Accordingly, a finding [by the district court] of a violation of Chapter 22 is inconsistent with a finding of a good-faith, reasonable delay.”  In this setting, the Supreme Court held an express finding of bad faith was not necessary in order to justify an award of attorney’s fees against the City.  Rather, it was the City’s burden of proof to establish a “good-faith, reasonable delay” to avoid a violation of Chapter 22 and resulting obligation for attorney’s fees.  The Supreme Court did, however, encourage district courts adjudicating attorney’s fees claims under Chapter 22 to make express findings on whether a delay was reasonable and in good faith.

The Supreme Court also rejected the City’s defense that its decision to withhold the videotape was based on the advice of counsel, and remanded the case to the district court so that it could also award attorney’s fees incurred during the appeal.

A copy of the court’s opinion can be obtained here.

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