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The Public Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland Win Victory in Massey v. Galley

The Public Justice Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland won an important victory for citizens’ rights under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA). 

In 2002, when he was an inmate in the Maryland Division of Corrections, Richard Massey requested information about certain government affairs including contracted medical care and use of fees paid by prisoners to the commissary and for photocopies.  The Warden, Jon Galley, never responded to Mr. Massey, despite a second request for the information.  Mr. Massey was left with no recourse but to file a complaint with the circuit court to enforce his rights under the MPIA.

The government responded by arguing that Mr. Massey did not have a right to enforce the MPIA because he is a prisoner and must first utilize the timely and often ineffective multi-layered prisoner grievance system.  The PJC and ACLU-MD represented Mr. Massey in appeals to Maryland’s intermediate and highest appellate courts and, in the end, secured a victory for Mr. Massey.  The Maryland Court of Appeals agreed with the PJC and ACLU-MD that the right to information about governmental affairs under the MPIA is so important that the government cannot avoid its responsibilities, even when a prisoner is requesting information.

When the case was sent back to the trial court, Mr. Massey asked the court to find that the government violated the MPIA by failing to respond within the Act’s firm response time requirements.  He also asked that the court order the government to provide him the information he requested.  The government argued that the case is no longer relevant because Mr. Massey had been sent a letter by the Commissioner of Corrections telling him to again ask Warden Galley (the person who never responded to his request for information in the first place) for the information.  The Attorney General’s Office also argued, on behalf of the government, that Mr. Massey, if he still desires the information, should submit another public information act request.  Although the trial court agreed with Mr. Massey that the government violated the Act, it nonetheless held in favor of the government because it concluded that the wild goose chase Mr. Massey had been sent on was a sufficient response under the MPIA.
The PJC and ACLU-MD filed an appeal with the Court of Special Appeals asking the Court to prevent the government from undermining the important protections of the MPIA.  We argued that the government cannot be permitted to ignore obligations to respond under the Act and then simply have the suit dismissed because they file a response (and in this case, a significantly inadequate response).

On August 13, 2009, the Court of Special Appeals issued a decision (unreported) in favor of Mr. Massey. “In our view, a response from the custodian's supervisor saying, in essence, ‘go ask the custodian,’ does not satisfy the custodian's obligation under MPIA. . . .  To conclude that [the Commissioner of Corrections’] response was adequate to satisfy the custodian's obligations would mean that records would never actually have to be provided so long as every request was answered with an instruction to ask again.” 

Counsel for Mr. Massey are Wendy Hess of the PJC and Deborah Jeon of the ACLU-MD.

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