Public Records Request Once Removed

In the recent appellate court decision of Juneau County Star-Times v. Juneau County, the appeals court held that billing records from a sub-contracted attorney to the County’s insurance company, which were not and had never been in the possession of the County, were subject to disclosure under the public records law.  Juneau County was insured by Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corporation (“WCMI”).  WCMI hired a law firm to handle a case for the County, and that law firm billed the insurance company.  The Juneau County Star-Times made a public records request for the law firm’s bills to the insurance company.  While the County did provide the records, they were heavily redacted.

In circuit court, the County and the newspaper argued whether the records were even subject to the public records law, since they were not in the County’s possession and were not, directly, produced on behalf of the County.  The County argued that since the cost to the County was the cost of the contract between the County and WCMI, the bills sent to WCMI from the law firm were not directly related to the County’s business (that’s my paraphrasing), and if they weren’t, then they’re not government records.  The circuit court agreed.  However, the appeals court held they were subject to the public records law because they were “collected” under a contract the County had with WCMI. 

 I see a large grey area where internal business records of a company that contracts with a municipality or county might be subject to a public records request under this ruling, and I expect to see additional litigation on this in the future.

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