A state appeals court ruled against the city of Bridgeport in a dispute over responsive records to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, overturning a lower court ruling against the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC).
At issue in the case are records requested through FOIA by Marlando Daley. Daley, who was convicted of murder and incarcerated, requested records related to the Bridgeport Police Department’s investigation of him and the murder charge against him from the department on August 6, 2019. He requested the department respond within fourteen days.
On August 19, 2019, Daley filed a complaint with the FOIC, alleging the department had not complied with his request. The commission received the complaint on August 20.
The previous day, on August 19, Bridgeport’s Office of the City Attorney responded to Daley’s request, notifying him that the request had been received and he would be contacted again when documents were available.
The city responded to Daley’s complaint with the commission on September 26, 2019, claiming the city attorney received the request on August 19 and acknowledged receipt the same day. They also stated they were in the process of complying with the request and would finish reviewing documents for information exempt from disclosure under FOIA by October 10 of the same year.
The city attorney sent Daley the requested records on October 13.
The FOIC held a hearing on the merits of Daley’s complaints, where his attorney informed the commission that while he had received responsive documents, they contained extensive redactions. The commission continued the hearing to allow testimony from a detective with the police department on the exemptions claimed to redact information and withhold it from disclosure.
Following a second hearing, the hearing officer found the plaintiffs violated FOIA by failing to conduct a thorough search of records and redacting certain information. The hearing officer also concluded that failure to respond to Daley’s request by August 12 amounted to a constructive denial of the request. The FOIC later ruled to adopt the hearing officer’s report.
Following that ruling, Bridgeport appealed the decision in Superior Court for the district of New Britain, which ruled that the FOIC improperly ruled it had jurisdiction over the complaint because Daley had requested a response within 14 days. As a result, the trial court ruled, no denial of the request existed before at least August 26. The trial court also found that because the city did not receive Daley’s request until August 19, the FOIC could not deem it denied when they received Daley’s complaint on August 20.
However, in its October 24, 2023 ruling, the Superior Court for the District of New Britain overturned the trial court’s findings and ruled the lower court “exceeded the scope of judicial review” by finding that Daley had waived the four-day response period laid out in FOIA. Under Section 1-206 of FOIA, agencies that deny a request for records must do so in writing within four days of the request in most cases.
According to the appeals court, the issue of whether the four-day request requirement had been waived was not raised by the city or considered by the commission and was improperly raised by the trial court in its decision.
“[B]ecause D[aley] ruled in his complaint a violation of the act, his complaint presented a claim that was within the class of cases that the commission had the authority and competence to decide; moreover, whether a complainant has been denied a right under the act went to the merits of every complaint before the commission, and, thus, the denial of a request, either in fact or pursuant to [the four-day denial requirement] was an essential fact that went to the merits of the complaint before the commission and implicated the commission’s authority to grant a complainant relief under the act.” the appeals court held.
The delay between Daley’s submission of the FOIA request and the city’s receipt of it was a result of it being sent through the mail. The appeals court ruled that when a request is sent by mail, the operative date in determining whether a request has been denied in keeping with the four-day rule is the date it was received by a public agency. The trial court acted properly in making that determination according to the trial court.
Additionally, the appeals court found the trial court acted improperly in sustaining Bridgeport’s appeal for a number of other reasons. According to the higher court, the FOIC’s finding that Daley’s request was deemed denied prior to filing his complaint was “reasonably supported by substantial evidence in the record.” The ruling noted that while the city claims not to have received Daley’s request until August 19, it presented no evidence to “rebut the presumption” that the request was received more than four business days before the request was filed.
The court also found the city could not prevail on several other alternate arguments.
The trial court’s judgment was reversed and the appeals court found the city violated FOIA and ordered them to comply with the law by disclosing records to the complainant.