WIREData, Inc. v. Village of Sussex is a decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court handed down in June 2008. This case is actually the assembly of three cases between WIREdata Inc. and the Villages of Sussex, Thiensville, and the City of Port Washington over open records requests.
The court determined in its ruling that three Wisconsin municipalities (Sussex, Thiensville and Port Washington) did not violate the Wisconsin Open Records Law when they failed to give a real estate listing service access to property assessment records in a computer database.
The decision overturned a Court of Appeals decision that had ordered the cities to give WIREdata Corp. access to property assessment records in the format that the data was kept in by the private contractors who collected the information.
WIREdata got the reports in PDF form rather than in the format used by those who collected the information it sought.
The appeals court had determined that requesters must be given access to a municipality’s, or other government agency’s, electronic databases to examine them, extract information from them or copy them.
The Supreme Court ruled that the PDFs provided by the cities satisfied WIREdata’s initial records request.
This case established a number of precedents for Wisconsin law:
1.) Municipalities cannot shrug responsibility for open records requests by contracting with private companies for the storage and release of records. Failures on the part of the private companies to uphold the law will result in actions against the municipalities.
2.) Records requests for records in digital form need not be delivered, nor should be delivered through allowing the requestor to view the original database, but can be delivered in any electronic.
- WIREdata Inc. made a series of public records requests concerning the property assessments conducted by the Villages of Sussex, Thiensville, and the City of Port Washington. WIREdata Inc. intended to sell the documents to real estate firms. WIREdata submitted the requests, specifying that they wanted the material in the original electronic format.
- The municipalities all contracted with private firms to not only assess the properties but maintained the archived documents.
- The municipalities offered to release the requested documents to WIREdata in a printed format. WIREdata submitted an additional request for the information in the original digital format to the companies which maintained the records for the municipalities.
- This additional request was denied by the assessment firms because the task of translating the information into a program that WIREdata could use was significant and time consuming.
- WIREdata insisted on having the information and the assessment firms determined they could offer the data for a one time fee of $6,600 in addition to a $.50 fee per document. These fees would be required again if WIREdata wished to transfer the documents in bulk to another company.
- When the city questioned the assessment company's price, the company explained their justification and asserted that the request was no longer a records request because WIREdata was now requesting the technology patents held by the assessment firm. The firm claimed that the city had already met the records request with the printed files.
- The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the assessment firm held the rights to the storage technology which held the records. As a result of WIREdata's reluctance to pay the fees for the use of this data, the assessment firms released the files in a electronic pdf format.
- WIREdata felt that this was unacceptable and filed suit. The trial court in Sussex ruled in favor of WIREData.
- The decision was appealed to the [Judgepedia:Wisconsin Court of Appeals|Wisconsin Court of Appeals]] and then again to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Thiensville and the City of Port Washington
The Thiensville and Port Washington histories vary only insofar as the district court ruled in favor of the city, granting the cities attorney fees. WIREdata appealed these decisions.
Supporters of the FOIA request
Criticisms of the FOIA request
Ruling of the court
The trial court in Sussex ruled in favor of WIREdata, declaring that the request was for an existing record and did not require the creation of a new record. The court also determined that both the village and the assessment firms represented public bodies in this instance. The court mandated that the assessment firms deliver the information in the desired format.
However the trial courts in Thiensville and Port Washington ruled in favor of the cities, claiming that the pdf's delivered after the decision of the Federal Court of Appeals constituted an electronic delivery of the records request and sufficiently fulfilled the Wisconsin Open Records Law's statutes. They further established that the second records request submitted by WIREdata was not a sufficient records request because it was not submitted to the government bodies, but to the private corporation.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals had the daunting task of aligning these three decisions. On January 3, 2007, the court affirmed the ruling of the Sussex court determining that the municipalities were required to give WIREdata the recods in their original format. Further, the court held the municipalities and not the independent assessors, fully liable, stating that the "municipalities could not evade their duties under the open records law by having independent contractor assessors create and maintain their property assessment records.".
The Supreme Court first determined that WIREdata inappropriately began court proceedings by filing suit before the municipalities had rejected their records requests because the municipalities had granted ample opportunity for WIREdata to have the request in written form within a reasonable amount of time. The court went on to concur with the court of appeals decision that the independent assessment firms did not constitute corporations appointed by the public bodies and were thus not subject to public record requests. This decision, like that of the court of appeals, rests the full responsibility of any inability to fulfill a records request on the municipality and not on the contractor who has been hired to maintain the records. However, the court overruled the court of appeals decision, in that it determined that the pdf files given to WIREdata were in fact electronic copies of the record requests and thus met the criteria of the initial records request made by WIREdata. The subsequent requests are considered void because they were not made to the municipalities. However, the court did imply that the pdf data woul be sufficient to meet the enhanced request as well. Finally, the courts determined that the assessment corportations violated no laws in quoting high fees for delivering the advanced data requested by WIREdata, because the municipalities and the assessment firms had already fulfilled WIREdata's request with the pdf's, free of charge. The court thus overturned the majority of the ruling of the court of appeals and ruled in favor of the municipalities.
- ↑ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin Supreme Court issues ruling in open records case; Municipalities that turned over PDFs instead of databases did not violate law," June 25, 2008 (dead link)
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Ruling of the Court