JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri judge has ruled that a state agency purposely violated open records law when it tried to charge a genealogical research group nearly $1.5 million for birth and death records then completely rejected the group's request.
Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia S. Joyce ruled last week that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services “knowingly and purposely” violated the state's Sunshine Law in its response to a request by Reclaim The Records, a California-based nonprofit that works to make public records available online for genealogical and historical researchers, KCUR reported.
Joyce levied a $12,000 fine against the health department and ordered it to pay about $150,000 in legal fees for Reclaim The Records.
“Our position at Reclaim The Records is that public data belongs to the public,” said Brooke Schreier Ganz, founder and president of the group. “This is a form of public data that is easily and freely available in other states. There was no reason for Missouri to be withholding it from the public.”
Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for DHSS, said the agency was considering whether to appeal the ruling.
Joyce ruled that the agency deliberately delayed granting the request and then tried to persuade state lawmakers to change the open records law, which lawmakers chose not to do.
The case began in early 2016, when Reclaim The Records sought birth and death record indexes in Missouri since 1910. The state agency said it would cost nearly $1.5 million to fulfill the request, based on an estimated 35,000 employee hours needed to find the records, at an hourly rate of $42.50.
When Kansas City lawyer Bernard Rhodes, who represented Reclaim The Records, argued the request could be fulfilled with simple date-range searches, the health department sent a revised estimate of $5,000. But Rhodes again objected, saying the new estimate was based on separate searches for each year and that the request could be performed with a single search for multiple years.
The state then denied Reclaim The Records’ request altogether.
Joyce said the records sought by Reclaim The Records were obvious public records that were not covered by any exceptions in the Sunshine Law. She ruled the state violated the law by denying the request and by charging excessive fees.
The health department should have charged no more than $2,557 to provide the records, the judge wrote.
He said Joyce rejected arguments that health department rules don’t “require” them to release the records but only “allow” them to do so. The judge ruled that the Sunshine Law says all government records are open unless they are “specifically closed.”
Rhodes said he’s been making that argument since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when seeking the release of records related to the coronavirus.
“This decision will make our work in that regard much, much easier,” he said.