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Court affirms that prison settlements are public records

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The state Court of Appeals has upheld a judge’s decision that settlement agreements reached between a prison health care contractor and its patients are public documents subject to disclosure under New Mexico’s public records law.

Open government advocates celebrated the decision, calling it a victory that “will help all of us for years to come.”

“The Appeals Court decision reaffirms the two key holdings from the district court: that settlement documents are public records and that private entities performing a public function for a public agency are subject to (the Inspection of Public Records Act),” the Foundation for Open Government wrote in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

The opinion comes more than three years after the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and FOG submitted written requests to the New Mexico Corrections Department for settlement documents involving Corizon Health.

In June 2016, the company settled claims filed by 59 inmates at two prisons for nearly $4.6 million, and many of those payouts appeared to be related to a physician accused of sexually abusing inmates. At the time, Corizon was paid $37 million a year to provide inmate medical services at 10 New Mexico facilities.

But the Corrections Department said that it did not have any responsive documents and that under the terms of its contract with Corizon, the department would not be involved in lawsuits alleging improper or unconstitutional care.

The same requests were then sent to Corizon, which provided a table listing settlement amounts and the facility involved. But the company ultimately sent a letter saying that IPRA did not require the release of the settlements and that confidentiality agreements would prohibit their disclosure.

A spokeswoman for Corizon Health said Tuesday that the company “received the ruling today” and is “reviewing it and considering our options.”

The newspapers and FOG argued that Corizon, as a private entity acting on behalf of a public body, was subject to the state’s open records laws. The District Court agreed and ordered Corizon to produce the settlements. Corizon appealed that decision.

In an opinion filed Monday, Judges Miles Hanisee, Linda Vanzi and Richard Bosson affirmed the District Court decision. They found that the agreements were created as a result of Corizon’s public functions on behalf of the state Department of Corrections and that they involve the alleged mistreatment of inmates who were in the state’s custody. The decision also points to a section of IPRA that says people are entitled “to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government” and notes that the court has previously found that settlements resulting from claims involving allegations of sexual abuse in detention centers are subject to release.

Allowing private entities that contract with the state to circumvent public access laws would thwart the purpose of IPRA, the opinion said.

The Court of Appeals also determined that the district judge properly awarded attorneys fees. According to FOG, the District Court decision found that Corizon had to pay around $37,000 in attorneys’ fees to attorneys Daniel Yohalem and Katharine Murray, who represented the organizations that sought the records.

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