The issue before us is a request for the release of notes containing possible personnel information, relating to the performance of Bernadette Fowler Lamson ("Petitioner") as an employee of the Montgomery County Attorney's office. Petitioner filed a Maryland Public Information Act ("MPIA")
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Petitioner was an employee of the Office of the Montgomery County Attorney for over twenty years. During that time, she received "highly successful" reviews and top performance ratings. In 2015, Ms. Kinch downgraded Petitioner's performance rating from "highly successful" to "successful," which prevented her from receiving a 20-year, 2% performance bonus. Prompted by the negative rating, Petitioner requested access to her personnel file on September 1, 2015, which was provided after three pages of supervisory notes were redacted. On October 8, 2015, after receiving this response, Petitioner filed a MPIA request specifying 16 categories of public records, including the missing notes. Specifically, Petitioner requested the following categories of information:
On January 27, 2016, Respondent provided several responses to the MPIA request. Regarding request number one, Respondent asserted that:
Respondent concluded by stating that the supervisory notes constitute attorney work product. Regarding the second request, Respondent reiterated the rationale advanced in request one. Regarding the remaining requests, Respondent either provided the documentation or denied the existence of the document.
Thereafter, Petitioner filed a Complaint on February 24, 2016 in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, alleging that Respondent violated the MPIA, and requested that the court order the disclosure of all relevant documents. In response, Respondent asserted that both sets of notes were not personnel records and were privileged or confidential by law, privileged attorney-client documents, attorney work product, or not subject to disclosure because of executive privilege. Thereafter, Respondent filed a Motion to Dismiss, or alternatively, a Motion for Summary Judgment. On May 10, 2016, Petitioner filed a Motion for a Vaughn index,
As a result, the trial court concluded that an in camera review was not required, because the notes were not considered personnel records pursuant to Montgomery County Personnel Regulation § 4-8 (2001). Thereafter, Petitioner noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.
The Court of Special Appeals issued its unreported opinion on August 25, 2017. See Lamson v. Montgomery Cty., No. 892, Sept. Term 2016, (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 25, 2017), 2017 WL 3668171, cert. granted, 456 Md. 523, 175 A.3d 151 (2017). The Court rephrased the questions presented by Petitioner and addressed two primary issues. The first issue addressed arguments relating to the trial court's review of the responses to her MPIA request. The second issue related to the finding that the personnel notes fell outside the parameters of an MPIA request. The Court began by outlining the purpose of the MPIA, noting that the Act was created to grant access to sensitive information pursuant to several statutory limitations, such as where federal or state law prohibits it, or where the disclosure of information runs contrary to the public interest. See Glenn v. Maryland Dep't of Health & Mental Hygiene, 446 Md. 378, 384, 132 A.3d 245, 249 (2016). Next, the Court observed that the MPIA generally allows individuals to obtain private records about themselves, including personnel records and that such records should be provided, in the absence an adequate justification.
Turning to the merits of the appeal, the Court of Special Appeals determined that Respondent sufficiently responded to requests three through sixteen, and that Petitioner did not allege sufficient facts to support challenges to those responses. Regarding requests one and two, the Court found that the "supervisory notes do not fit within the definition of excludable `supervisory notes' under the Montgomery County Personnel Regulations, and that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to review them in camera to determine whether non-disclosure was justified on other grounds." Lamson, 2017 WL 3668171, at *5. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the MPIA preempts any county regulation imposed under Montgomery County Personnel Regulations and determined that county regulations could not preclude disclosure of Petitioner's personnel records. As such, county regulations could not be used to justify the denial of an MPIA request. Regarding the notes contained in Ms. Kinch's private journal, the Court determined that they were not subject to disclosure because they were made by Ms. Kinch in an unofficial capacity and kept outside of Petitioner's personnel folder. As such, the Court determined that they were not public in nature and thus, not subject to disclosure. Following this decision, Petitioner filed for certiorari, which we granted. 456 Md. 523, 175 A.3d 151 (2017).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
"Judicial review of an agency's decision on MPIA requests is authorized by Gen. Prov. § 4-362, which permits a person who is denied inspection of a public record to challenge the denial by filing a complaint in the circuit court." Action Comm. for Transit, Inc. v. Town of Chevy Chase, 229 Md.App. 540, 558, 145 A.3d 640, 650 (2016). "The standard of review for a trial court's decision on a government's response to an MPIA request is `whether that court had an adequate factual basis for the decision it rendered and whether the decision the court reached was clearly erroneous.'" Id. We have defined the clearly erroneous standard by stating, "[i]f any competent material evidence exists in support of the trial court's factual findings, those findings cannot be held to be clearly erroneous." Webb v. Nowak, 433 Md. 666, 678, 72 A.3d 587, 594 (2013). However, "[t]o the extent the [c]ircuit [c]ourt's exercise of discretion is based on an interpretation of law, that aspect of the ruling below is reviewed de novo...." Lamone v. Schlakman, 451 Md. 468, 479, 153 A.3d 144, 151 (2017). Moreover, the Circuit Court for Montgomery County granted Respondent's Motion to Dismiss. "We review the grant of a [M]otion to [D]ismiss de novo." Reichs Ford Rd. Joint Venture v. State Roads Commission of the State Highway Administration, 388 Md. 500, 509, 880 A.2d 307, 312 (2005). In determining whether the decision of a lower court was legally correct, we give no deference to the trial court findings and review the decision under a de novo standard of review. See Walter v. Gunter, 367 Md. 386, 392, 788 A.2d 609, 612 (2002). See also Breslin v. Powell, 421 Md. 266, 277, 26 A.3d 878, 885 (2011). As a result, we shall review the merits of this matter de novo to determine whether the MPIA was properly interpreted and the grant of the motion to dismiss was legally correct.
The Purpose of the MPIA
The MPIA creates an affirmative right for all persons granting "access to information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees." Gen. Prov. § 4-103. See also Glass v. Anne Arundel Cty., 453 Md. 201, 207-08, 160 A.3d 658, 661-62 (2017). We have explained this right, stating that the MPIA "was created to `provide the public the right to inspect the records of the State government or of a political subdivision within the State.'" Glenn, 446 Md. at 384, 132 A.3d at 249. Additionally, we noted that public policy creates "a general presumption in favor of disclosure of government or public documents." Id. at 385, 132 A.3d at 249. See also Maryland Dep't of State Police v. Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, 430 Md. 179, 190, 59 A.3d 1037, 1043 (2013). However, in Glass, we outlined the numerous exceptions to disclosure contained in the MPIA and classified them into four categories. The first category prevents the disclosure of documents controlled by other laws. Glass, 453 Md. at 209, 160 A.3d at 662. Where a law controls disclosure of a particular document, Gen. Prov. § 4-301 prevents disclosure of the document. Id. The second category identifies documents or information that an agency may not disclose, also known as "mandatory exceptions." Id. The mandatory exceptions prevent the disclosure of documents or information and require the custodian of records to deny a request for those records or information outright. Moreover, "the statute forbids an agency from disclosing certain types of information that may appear in a record, even if other parts of the record are open to inspection." Id. at 209, 160 A.3d at 662-63. See
One of the mandatory exceptions is set forth in Gen. Prov. § 4-311 and controls the disclosure of personnel records and requires that the custodian of personnel records "deny inspection of a personnel record of an individual, including an application, a performance rating, or scholastic achievement information." The provision also contains a requirement that the custodian permit inspection of the record when requested by the "person of interest" or a supervisor of the person in interest. Id. A "person of interest" is defined as "a person or governmental unit that is the subject of a public record or a designee of the person or governmental unit[.]" Gen. Prov. § 4-101(g). A "person of interest" may have a broader right of access to a record than other persons that may pursue the right to inspect a record. This provision is in contrast to the provisions governing general records subject to disclosure and explicitly mandates that the records be kept private, unless requested by the person in interest or a supervisor of such a person. To be clear, while personnel records are a sub-category of "public records," they are largely exempt from disclosure. See Gen. Prov. § 4-304 (stating, "a custodian shall deny inspection of a public record, as provided in this part"). As such, where there is an assertion that the records at issue may constitute personnel records there must be an inquiry into the nature of the records to determine which rules govern their disclosure. To pursue that examination we must first define both types of records.
The MPIA broadly defines a "public record" as any document that "is made by a unit or an instrumentality of the State or of a political subdivision or received by the unit or instrumentality in connection with the transaction of public business[.]" Gen. Prov. § 4-101(j)(1)(i). It includes any copy of a public record, including written documents, photographs, and drawings in both printed and electronically stored formats. This definition is in line with the purpose of the MPIA generally. Because the MPIA is designed to grant access to documents regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials, it follows that the definition of a public record should be broad enough to cover a wide range of document types. One type of public record is a personnel record. These records, which are not explicitly defined by the MPIA, have been addressed by the Court in Kirwan v. The Diamondback, which discussed the definition of a personnel record in some detail. 352 Md. 74, 721 A.2d 196 (1998). The Kirwan Court noted that Gen. Prov. § 4-311 provides examples of the types of records that constitute personnel records. Gen. Prov. § 4-311(a) states, "[s]ubject to
Id. at 84, 721 A.2d at 200. (Emphasis in original). With these definitions in mind, we must now determine how they influence the review of a denied MPIA request.
Review of a denied MPIA request
Judicial review of a denied MPIA request is authorized by Gen. Prov. § 4-362. The provision states that, "whenever a person or governmental unit is denied inspection of a public record or is not provided with a copy, printout, or photograph of a public record as requested, the person or governmental unit may file a complaint with the circuit court." Gen. Prov. § 4-362(a)(1). This subtitle also contains several prescriptions that govern the review of a denied request. Specifically, the provision instructs an aggrieved party on the proper venue for filing a complaint, articulates the limits of the reviewing court, and most importantly describes the methods that a court may use in evaluating the sufficiency of a denial of an MPIA. See Gen. Prov. § 4-362(c)(1), (2) and (3).
In reviewing the Motion to Dismiss, we first examine the procedure employed by the Circuit Court for Montgomery County. The trial court determined that the notes were not subject to review because such disclosure was precluded by Montgomery County Personnel Regulation § 4-8. We agree with the finding of the Court of Special Appeals and determine that Montgomery County Regulations cannot be invoked to prevent disclosure of records. In reaching this conclusion, we are reminded of our decision in Police Patrol Sec. Sys., Inc. v. Prince George's Cty., 378 Md. 702, 711, 838 A.2d 1191, 1196 (2003) (hereinafter "Police Patrol"). In Police Patrol, we considered the relationship between local ordinances and the prescriptions of the MPIA and determined that "a county charter is subordinate to the public general laws of Maryland." Id. at 712, 838 A.2d at 1197. We went on to state that "[a] local government ordinance or charter that conflicts with a public general law enacted by the General Assembly is preempted and thus is invalid." Id. In the case at bar, the trial court permitted the invocation of Montgomery County Personnel Regulation § 4-8 to prevent the disclosure of Petitioner's personnel records in contravention of the MPIA. Montgomery County Personnel Regulation § 4-8 categorially precludes the disclosure of records that are permitted under the MPIA. As such, the regulation conflicts with the express language of the MPIA. Pursuant to Police Patrol, we must find the regulation invalid as it impermissibly limits the application of a state law enacted by General Assembly.
Thereafter, the Court of Special Appeals made two determinations relative
The plain language of Gen. Prov. § 4-362 permits the trial court to conduct an in camera review of disputed materials to determine whether they are subject to disclosure. The subtitle provides "[t]he court may examine the public record in camera to determine whether any part of the public record may be withheld under this title." Gen. Prov. § 4-362(c)(2). In order for a trial court to accomplish this goal, they must be satisfied that the agency rationale offered in denying a MPIA request is fully supported. With this idea in mind, we turn to our discussion in Cranford v. Montgomery Cty., 300 Md. 759, 481 A.2d 221 (1984). In Cranford, we examined a trial court's ability to conduct an inquiry into the denial of an MPIA request and evaluated what is necessary for the proper denial of a MPIA request. This case also provides an apt summation of the methods of evaluation and informs our decision today. At issue in Cranford was a Sentinel Newspaper request for documents relating to a construction project in Montgomery County Government Center. Id. at 763, 481 A.2d at 223. In reviewing the merits of the request, we articulated several holdings that are relevant to the instant dispute. The Court noted competing interests that are inherent in a MPIA request, which place at issue one party's statutory right to disclosure and another party's assertion of an exception that prevents disclosure. Id. at 777, 481 A.2d at 230. In addressing this tension, the Court noted that
Id. at 777, 481 A.2d at 230. The Court explained this requirement and stated that "[t]he General Assembly did not intend for custodians broadly to claim [exceptions] and thereby routinely to pass to the courts the task of performing in camera inspections." With this in mind, the Court established a rule that provides the trial court with discretion in reviewing disputed documents. The Court determined that, "the ultimate standard under the [MPIA] for determining whether an in camera inspection is to be made is whether the trial
To make a "responsible determination" the trial court must make two initial findings. First, the court must determine whether the documents at issue are a public "record." This requires that the court examine whether the notes "were made in connection with public business" as required by Gen. Prov. § 4-101. If the notes are not public "record," then the MPIA does not apply and the records are not required to be disclosed under the MPIA. If the notes are a public record then the trial court must determine what type of public records are at issue. This second level of inquiry seeks to classify the records in a manner that permits the court to apply the appropriate MPIA provisions while reviewing the denied request. This is particularly important in this case because Petitioner has asserted that the records are personnel records, which are generally subject to disclosure when requested by the person of interest. See Gen. Prov. § 4-311(b). In classifying the documents a second time, the trial court must determine whether the agency's rationale for denying the request is sufficient. See Cranford, 300 Md. at 780, 481 A.2d at 231 (reaffirming that the burden rests with the agency to demonstrate that an exception justifies non-disclosure). The second step in making a "reasonable determination" requires that the trial court review the exceptions made by the agency to determine whether they are justified. With this step, the trial court must determine whether the exceptions offered by the agency sufficiently prevent the disclosure of the record.
To make the required determinations, the trial court must apply one of the following methods in evaluating an MPIA request. The first method is a Vaughn index, which originates from the case of Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820 (D.C. Cir. 1973). This method has also been described as "a system of itemizing and indexing that correlates each of the government's justifications for its refusal to disclose the documents with the actual portions of the documents at issue." Lewis v. I.R.S., 823 F.2d 375, 377 n.3 (9th Cir. 1987). We described this method in Office of State Prosecutor v. Judicial Watch, Inc., 356 Md. 118, 121, 737 A.2d 592, 594 (1999). There we indicated that a Vaughn index "required the responding party to provide a list of documents in possession, setting forth the date, author, general subject matter and claim of privilege for each document claimed to be exempt from discovery." Id. n.1, 737 A.2d at 593 n.1 The Cranford Court addressed this method and determined that it is a viable alternative to an in camera review.
The second method that can be employed is the submission of testimony or affidavits, which detail the nature of the denial and establish the basis for the denial. See Maryland Gen. Prov. § 4-362. In describing this method, the Cranford Court determined that the agency must demonstrate that the exception applies and may do so by offering evidence by way of testimony or affidavits from the custodian of record. Cranford, 300 Md. at 779, 481 A.2d at 231.
The final method permits the trial court to conduct an in camera review to evaluate the merits of an agency denial of an MPIA request. This method is enumerated in Maryland Gen. Prov. § 4-362 and is appropriate where the submission of other evidence is not sufficient to evaluate a denial of an MPIA request. This method is also appropriate where the documents at issue are not voluminous. See Cranford, 300 Md. at 779, 481 A.2d at 231.
In applying the Cranford factors to the case at bar, in camera review may be the preferable method to review the disputed notes. The first factor, judicial economy, is best served by conducting in camera review because the documents at issue are not voluminous. The second factor, which examines the conclusory nature of the exceptions offered, requires the trial court to evaluate the exceptions and the rationale offered in support thereof. Where the trial court determines that the exceptions offered are general in nature, Cranford requires additional inquiry into the exceptions offered. Respondent's primary assertion is that the journal notes are privileged attorney-client documents. However, the trial court did not evaluate the veracity of the assertion. Because the assertion is general in nature, the trial court must conduct a review that reflects an evaluation of the assertion. Finally, the last relevant factor considers the fact that the agency suggested in camera. In the instant case, Respondent, in responding to Petitioner's request for a Vaughn index, stated that an in camera review "is available" although Respondent disputed its necessity. Nonetheless, the trial court should consider Respondent's statement when deciding the method of review for the disputed notes.
Where there has been a denial of a proper MPIA request the proponent of the request is entitled to judicial review to evaluate the sufficiency of the denial. Further, the trial court in reviewing the denial must be satisfied that the rationale offered by the agency supports the denial of the request. To make this determination, the trial court may require the presentation of evidence such as testimony or affidavits, order a Vaughn index, or conduct an in camera review. While the trial court is free to employ the method it deems appropriate under the circumstances there must be a showing that all the requirements of the asserted exception have been met. Based on an application of the Cranford factors it appears that in camera review will likely be the appropriate method for review of the disputed notes. However, regardless of the method applied, the trial court must not permit Respondent to make generalized allegations and must require that Respondent offer an explanation that reasonably demonstrates that the exceptions are applicable. In the case at bar, the trial court granted Respondent's Motion to Dismiss erroneously. As discussed supra reliance on Montgomery County Regulations will not support the denial of a valid MPIA request. Because the trial court ruled on these grounds, the record is devoid
Watts, J., concurs.
Concurring Opinion by Watts, J.
Respectfully, I concur. I agree with the majority opinion's holding remanding the case for further proceedings, but I would remand the case to the Court of Special Appeals with instructions to vacate the judgment of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County and order the circuit court to conduct an in camera review of the notes contained in Petitioner's supervisor's journal. The majority opinion remands the case for the circuit court to choose the method of addressing potential disclosure of the notes in the supervisor's journal, stating that "the [circuit] court may require the presentation of evidence such as testimony or affidavits, order a Vaughn index, or conduct an in camera review." Maj. Op. at 369, 190 A.3d at 328. Indeed, the majority opinion states that, although the circuit "court is free to employ the method it deems appropriate under the circumstances[,]" "it appears that in camera review will likely be the appropriate method for review of the disputed notes." Maj. Op. at 369, 190 A.3d at 328. In its opinion, the Court of Special Appeals authorized the in camera review of the supervisory notes contained in Petitioner's supervisory file.
For the above reasons, respectfully, I concur.
Montgomery County, Md. Personnel Regulation § 4-8 (2001).