Register Div. of Freedom Newspapers Inc. v. County of Orange was a case before California's Fourth District Court of Appeal in 1984 concerning the results of a secret settlement over a tort involving the county.
This case established two important precedents:
1.) The exemption for medical records applied only to required medical records and not those given voluntarily to the state.
2.) The public interest in the management of public funds can at times outweigh the public bodies need to maintain attorney-client confidentiality which better enables them to prosecute future similar cases.
- On October 22, 1982 an inmate, Michael Clemens and the County of Orange arrived at a settlement over a lawsuit filed by Clemens based on harm he received while in prison from negligence on the part of prison officials. The officials moved Clemens from protective custody to a shared cell block where he incurred physical harm.
- In 'January 1983 The Register made a public records request of the documents relating to the settlement. Upon receiving a rejection, The Register filed a lawsuit attempting to compel the county to release the documents under the California Public Records Act.
- The court ruled in favor of the newspaper and ordered the documents released.
- The county appealed the decision arguing that the court ignored a number of exemptions that applied to the documents within the settlement including sheriff's investigations and Clemens medical records. They also argued that the remaining documents are exempt under California's catch all exemption of statute 6255 because the release of the settlement would bring about a series of frivolous tort lawsuits and the details of how the County arrived at the settlement would seriously impair the counties ability to prosecute future tort lawsuits. Finally, they argued that the closed meeting they held to discuss the settlement, and the minutes of that meeting are exempt because the meeting falls under one of the exemptions of the Brown Act.
Ruling of the court
The trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper ordering the documents released based on both the Constitutional first and fourteenth amendment rights as well as the California Public Records Act.
The court of appeals ruled in favor of The Register, ordering the release of the documents associated with the settlement.
The court of appeals first overturned the trial courts decisions based on Constitutional arguments. It felt that no part of the Constitution guaranteed anyone special access to public records. However, with regard to the California Public Records Act, the court agreed with the trial court and ordered the document released. It found that the settlement was in fact a public record, held by a public body concerning the conduct of public business. The court also eliminated the exemption for medical records because all privacy statutes were created to protect the privacy of individuals who were forced to submit information, and do not apply to information submitted voluntarily by any party. They also eliminated the exemption for police investigations within this case by asserting that the investigation was not of a "correctional, law enforcement or licensing" nature, and thus not exempt. However, it did remand for an in camera review of the documents to determine whether the release of the records jeopardized the safety of anyone involved in the incidents. The court went on to rule that the closed meeting the County held was in violation of the Brown Act and the exemption for attorney-client privilege did not apply and thus the minutes from that meeting were not exempt from public disclosure. The court finally ruled that the public interest in the management of public funds far outweighed any detriment to the ability of the county to prosecute future lawsuits. Based on this final consideration, the court ordered the majority of the document released and ordered a few documents, namely the investigation reports and some preliminary notes, remanded to trial court for an in camera review to determine whether or not they were exempt documents.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ruling of the Court