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Court Rules Prisoner Litigation Act Does Not Stop Prisoner's Request for Public Information

May 12, 2006: In a victory for open government, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled today in Massey v. Galley that inmates do not have to endure excessive hurdles set by the Prisoner Litigation Act in order to obtain information under the Maryland Public Information Act, emphasizing the importance of the right of all citizens to have access to public information.
Two years ago, Mr. Massey submitted four Public Information Act requests to the warden of his facility seeking information about prison management, including the contract for the provision of health services at the facility.  After the warden failed to respond, Massey filed suit pro se.  Both the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals, where Mr. Massey was also pro se, held that, under the Prisoner Litigation Act, Mr. Massey was required to exhaust administrative remedies before he could seek to enforce his right to public information about prison management.
The Public Justice Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland petitioned the Court of Appeals on Mr. Massey’s behalf, seeking reversal of the lower court decisions on grounds that the MPIA provides access to information for all Marylanders. In May 2004, the Court granted review of Massey’s appeal and the case was argued by Joshua Auerbach, former PJC Murnaghan fellow, in October 2004.
In an opinion by Judge Eldridge, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded this action to the circuit court based on its holding that “the exhaustion of administrative remedies provision of the Prisoner Litigation Act has no application to, and does not preclude, the statutory cause of action under the Public Information Act.”  The Court of Appeals reasoned that the PLA exhaustion requirement precludes a “civil action,” meaning one that relates to or involves a prisoner’s conditions of confinement, and a mere request to inspect a public record does not relate to or involve a prisoner’s “conditions of confinement.”  Thus, the Court of Appeals held that Massey’s action under the Maryland Public Information Act should not have been dismissed on the ground that the Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
The Court rightly placed the focus on the government’s duty to grant access to information, rather than, as the state argued, on the status of the person seeking access to the public record.
Congratulations to former Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Joshua Auerbach and PJC staff attorney Wendy Hess, and Deborah Jeon from ACLU of Maryland, who represented Mr. Massey.
An article in the Daily Record follows.
John Nethercut
Executive Director
Public Justice Center
500 E. Lexington Street
Baltimore, MD  21202
voice 410-625-9409 Ext. 238
fax    410-625-9423
email nethercutj@publicjustice.org
website  www.publicjustice.org

Prisoner Litigation Act no bar to MPIA suit, Court of Appeals holds

May 12, 2006
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

An inmate did not have to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Prisoner Litigation Act before proceeding with a lawsuit under the Maryland Public Information Act, the Court of Appeals held yesterday.

Case:Massey v. Galley, Warden, CA No. 16, Sept. Term 2004. Reported. Opinion by Eldridge, J. Retired, specially assigned. Filed May 11, 2006.
Did the a prisoner have to exhaust his administrative remedies under the Prisoner Litigation Act before proceeding with a lawsuit under the Maryland Public Information Act?
No; reversed. The Prisoner Litigation Act deals with prisoner grievances related to conditions of confinement, not requests for documents under the MPIA.
Joshua N. Auerbach for petitioner; Asst. A.G. Karl A. Pothier for respondent
RecordFax: #6-0511-20 (20 pages)

The top court’s decision is the first win in a four-year fight for Richard L. Massey Jr., who has been seeking records pertaining to the health care contract for the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland as well as the costs of commissary items and photocopier cards.

An Allegany County circuit judge dismissed Massey’s lawsuit against Warden Jon P. Galley. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed in 2003.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding Massey’s status as a prisoner at the time of his request did not affect his right to information.

“In these situations, no ‘exhaustion’ issue could be raised…,” wrote retired Judge John C. Eldridge, who was specially assigned to the case. “[T]he focus of the Act is not upon the person seeking access to the public record. Instead, the Act is aimed at the custodian of the record, imposing upon the custodian the duty of disclosure.”

The finding was welcomed by lawyers from the Public Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who represented Massey before the Court of Appeals.
“It’s an underscoring of access to public information for all people in Maryland,” said PJC lawyer Wendy N. Hess. “And I think the court also wisely doesn’t focus on the status of a person or the focus of a person in getting government information, but rather on the broad principle of transparent government.”

Hess said she had not yet delivered the news of the court’s decision to her client, because prison officials told her that Massey was recently released.
In a statement, ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah A. Jeon said “all Marylanders have the right to information about their government, and laws protecting that right should not exclude those members of our society most vulnerable to the policies of government.”

Assistant Attorney General Karl A. Pothier did not return a call for comment by press time yesterday.

The MPIA, §§10-611 through 10-628 of the State Government Article, requires custodians of public records, with certain exceptions, to provide such records upon request in a timely manner.

While imprisoned in May and June 2002, Massey requested documents relating to an inmate medical care contract between the state and Prison Health Services and records regarding the costs of commissary items and photocopier cards sold at WCI.

His MPIA requests were not answered by Galley, the warden, and Massey filed suit in July 2002, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, costs and other damages.

Galley asked the circuit court to dismiss the suit. He cited the Prisoner Litigation Act, which mandates that an inmate must exhaust all administrative remedies, defined as procedures for review of prisoner grievances, before filing a “civil action,” defined as a request for legal relief relating to “a prisoner’s conditions of confinement.”

Specifically, Galley asserted that Massey should have taken his case to the Inmate Grievance Office.

The trial judge sided with the warden and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

In the Court of Appeals opinion, Eldridge stressed that the MPIA “contains no limitations as to those persons entitled to inspect public records.”

The two laws are not connected, because a request for public documents is not a prisoner grievance and does not relate to conditions of confinement, the Court of Appeals held.

“Nothing in the language of the Prisoner Litigation Act or its legislative history suggests that the statute might encompass a request for public information or the denial of such request,” Eldridge wrote.

An inmate MPIA request could concern records that are not held by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Eldridge noted; in that scenario, the Inmate Grievance Office would have no authority to order the custodian of the records in question to comply with the MPIA request.

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