May 9, 2023

TLo recovers over $600,000 for clients in separate public records disputes

In two recent, hotly contested public records cases, Thomas & LoCicero attorneys won access to newsworthy public records and – just as critically – recovered more than $600,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs its clients were forced to spend in order to obtain access to the requested public records.

In McClatchy Company, LLC v. Florida Department of Children and Families, Case No. 2021-003289-CA-01 (11th Judicial Cir., Miami-Dade County), TLo attorneys sued the Florida Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) on behalf of a news media/open government advocacy coalition when DCF denied access to records concerning the death of a 22-month old Opa-locka child (referred to as “R.B.”) who was under DCF supervision.  The litigation arose from the Miami Herald’s public records request for those records.  It was later joined in the request, and subsequent litigation, by: (1) The Associated Press; (2) the First Amendment Foundation; (3) the Florida Press Association; (4) Gannett Co., Inc.; (5) Graham Media Group; (6) The New York Times; (7) The Florida Star; (8) Scripps Media, Inc.; (9) the Tampa Bay Times; and (10) WPLG (Miami). 

While records about children in DCF’s care are normally not public, Florida Statute Section 39.202(2)(o) requires DCF to release those records to any person “in the event of the death of a child [is] determined to be a result of abuse, abandonment, or neglect.”  In response to the Miami Herald’s public records request, and despite clear evidence to the contrary, DCF asserted throughout the litigation that it had not yet determined whether R.B. died as a result of abuse, abandonment, or neglect and therefore it was not required to disclose the records.  After extensive discovery and an evidentiary hearing, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Barbara Areces disagreed, ruling that “DCF itself clearly knew that R.B. . . . died of neglect and/or abuse very shortly after his November 6, 2020, death.”  Accordingly, the Court ruled that DCF violated the Public Records Act by refusing to disclose the documents when initially requested.

Because DCF violated the Public Records Act, the Court found it was liable for the coalition’s attorneys’ fees and costs.  The Court ultimately awarded approximately $376,000 in fees and costs.  “The Court’s decision made clear the importance of timely public oversight when a child in DCF’s care dies,” said TLo attorney Mark Caramanica.  “DCF cannot ignore clear evidence of abuse and neglect and slow-walk a final determination as to a child’s cause of death in order to keep information from the public.”

The DCF litigation was led by TLo attorneys Dana McElroy and Mark Caramanica.  TLo attorneys Carol LoCicero and Daniela Abratt rounded out the litigation team.        

In Kuhlman v. Hardee County Industrial Development Authority, Case No. 12-CA-000590 (10th Judicial Cir., Hardee County), local resident Henry Kuhlman sought access to public records maintained by the Hardee County Industrial Development Authority (“IDA”) relating to its award of a multimillion-dollar grant to a software development company in 2011.  When the IDA denied that it had any responsive public records and instructed Mr. Kuhlman to seek the records directly from the software development company, Mr. Kuhlman sued for violation of the Public Records Act.  That lawsuit was filed in 2012.  

For nearly 10 years, Mr. Kuhlman’s lawsuit dragged on, with the IDA producing some, but not all, of the requested records.  In April 2022, Mr. Kuhlman hired TLo and, by August, TLo attorneys Mark Caramanica and Jim McGuire completed discovery and moved for summary judgment.  In response, the IDA cross-moved for summary judgment, but on December 22, 2022, Hardee County Circuit Judge Michael E. Raiden issued an order largely granting Mr. Kuhlman’s motion.

In the face of Judge Raiden’s order, the IDA conceded it was liable for attorneys’ fees.  TLo then negotiated for the IDA to pay Mr. Kuhlman $235,000 in fees.  “It took far too long for this case to be concluded,” said TLo attorney Mark Caramanica.  “But ultimately the Court reached the right conclusion to ensure that the public knows how its government is spending – or possibly misspending – millions of dollars.”

With offices in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Thomas & LoCicero is a Florida law firm that is widely known, respected and committed to free speech and a free press. The firm represents leading electronic and traditional publishers. Thomas & LoCicero also counsels clients in a variety of industries in intellectual property, marketing and advertising matters and litigates business, defamation, trademark, copyright and privacy cases.

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