SANTA FE — A district judge wrongly slashed attorney fees for a New Mexico newspaper that prevailed in a lawsuit to force release of public records, the state Court of Appeals has ruled in a case involving one of the state’s key open government laws.
The court ordered Rio Arriba County District Judge Sheri Raphaelson to recalculate the fees for attorneys and other costs incurred by the Rio Grande Sun and one of its reporters, who sued the Jemez Mountain School District in 2009 to force the release of records related to embezzlement at the district. The court also ordered Raphaelson to include fees from the appeals process.
Raphaelson awarded attorney fees of $5,000, reducing a request for $30,676. The judge said lawyers were claiming “strikingly high hourly rates” and that “a minimal amount of time should be needed to draft the required pleadings” in the case, given the experience of the newspaper’s attorneys.
But the appeals court ruled last week that the judge failed to properly consider billing statements and other information from the newspaper justifying the fees and didn’t objectively assess the legal efforts needed to win the public records lawsuit.
The court denied post-judgment interest but said the newspaper was entitled to costs and taxes that had to be paid on their attorney fees.
“Because Plaintiffs are the prevailing party on every issue except that involving post-judgment interest, they are entitled to their costs, which include ‘reasonable attorney fees for services rendered on appeal in causes where the award of attorney fees is permitted by law,’ ” the appeals court said in an order signed by Judge Cynthia A. Fry.
“We were never in doubt that the Court of Appeals would see it our way,” said Robert B. Trapp, the Rio Grande Sun’s managing editor. The paper paid much of its court-related fees out of pocket, Trapp said, which amounted to about $35,000 to $40,000.
Matthew Hoyt, a lawyer for the newspaper, said Friday that the court’s ruling was important for open government.
“A party seeking records needs to have some assurances that if they prevail they have a reasonable chance of being awarded their fees and costs that were expended based upon some objective criteria,” Hoyt said.
“Otherwise, whether it be a news media outlet or a citizen or an interest group … there might be a chilling effect on the use of the public records act because they might not sense whether they have a real shot at getting what they had to put into the case, what they had to expend in order to take the issue to court and prevail.”
In its ruling, the appeals court said the Inspection of Public Records Act “encourages individuals to enforce IPRA on behalf of the public” by requiring that citizens be awarded attorney fees if they prevail in a lawsuit against the government over the withholding of records.
“Without this incentive, prospective plaintiffs might have difficulty pursuing their claims and enforcing IPRA on behalf of the public,” the court said.
Hoyt said the ruling was the first by an appellate court in New Mexico to spell out how judges should handle requests for fees under the public records act.
A lawyer for the school district did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment on the ruling and whether the district might appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
The school district’s former business manager pleaded guilty in 2010 to stealing $3.3 million in school funds, but before sentencing died of what authorities said was a suicide.
Journal staff writer Matt Andazola contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal