Public records laws, which guarantee public access to public records, have become an increasingly used tool in recent years. At the federal level, agencies received a record 928,353 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in fiscal year 2022, an increase from the previous record of 858,952 received in fiscal year 2019.
And with that increase comes an increase in backlogs, as agencies struggle to use existing resources to accommodate more and more requests.
The city of Bridgeport, which has a backlog of more than 2,000 FOIA requests and has been fined by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission for its noncompliance, has perhaps been Connecticut’s most publicized example of current FOIA woes. City officials have blamed an increase in the number of requests received, jumping to 1,916 in 2022, the 2017 online launch of a portal for submitting FOIA requests, and the city’s recently changed policy of sending all requests through the city attorney’s office.
But are FOIA slowdowns primarily the fault of government negligence? As more people turn to FOIA as a way to discover public information and hold government officials accountable, many agencies argue that the potential for abuse of the law is also growing.
To combat the potential for state residents to abuse the FOIA process, Connecticut passed a law in 2017 allowing public agencies to petition Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) to request “relief from a requester that a public agency alleges is a vexatious requester.”
After receiving a petition, the FOIC’s executive director reviews it and determines whether a hearing is warranted.
If a hearing isn’t warranted, the executive director recommends the FOIC deny the petition. That recommendation is voted on at the commission’s next regular meeting and must be followed with a written explanation of its reasons for accepting or rejecting the recommendation.
If a hearing is warranted, the commission must serve all parties with a copy of the petition and hear the case. It must grant or deny the petition within one year of it being filed.
While the law does not define a “vexatious requester,” it does require that a petition for relief detail the conduct an agency alleges “demonstrates a vexatious history of request.” Among the information that must be included in a petition are:
- The number of filed and pending requests
- The scope of the requests
- The nature, content, language, or subject matter of the requests,
- The nature, content, language or subject matter of other oral and written communications to the agency from the requester
- And a pattern of conduct that amounts to an abuse of the right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act or an interference with the operation of the agency.
But though the exact meaning of much of this language is left undefined by state statute, the FOIC adopted definitions for several of the words and phrases described in the law in its first final decision on a petition for relief from a vexatious requester (PRVR), brought by the city of East Lyme against resident David Godbout.
On March 6, 2019, the town of East Lyme and the East Lyme Board of Education submitted a PRVR against town resident David Godbout. The complaint detailed a conflict between Godbout and town employees going back as far as 2011. Between 2011 and 2016, Godbout filed 437 complaints against the town’s handling of FOIA requests with the FOIC. In 2016, the town asked the commission not to schedule formal hearings in Godbout’s pending complaints. On September 6, 2016, citing the town’s request, the FOIC issued notices of its decision not to schedule formal hearings for 12 of Godbout’s complaints. Following the notices, Godbout withdrew his pending complaints.
But, according to the complaint, Godbout continued to file numerous requests with the town and to engage in “abusive confrontations with the petitioner’s employees.” In 2018, he filed “over 90 written FOIA requests, multiple verbal requests, and engaged in abusive confrontations with the petitioner’s employees.”
Examples of requests made by Godbout cited in the petition include: a January 16, 2018 request to the Land Use Department to inspect all email and metadata sent from the copy machine, a February 1, 2018 request for personal emails (which are exempt from public records requests) sent by members of the East Lyme Police Department, a March 15, 2018, verbal request to the Assessor’s office for all emails from that date going back as far as the Assessor felt reasonable, and requests made in October 2017 and June 2019 for deposition transcripts in an alleged sexual assault lawsuit involving a minor, in which the names of the parents and minors were sealed.
According to the town, these and other requests outlined in the petition showed Godbout to be a “vexatious, serial, FOIA filer, whose requests are routinely unlimited and/or unreasonable in scope or content.”
The complaint further detailed examples of alleged abusive conduct by Godbout, including an incident on March 1, 2018 where the Assessor’s office called police after Godbout refused to leave after repeated requests and being told that his conduct was making female employees uncomfortable. Godbout also visited the town high school multiple times, once on June 28, 2018 to file a request about transgender policy, and again on July 2 and 6 to inquire about the school’s Facebook account.
On July 13, Godbout visited the town offices of the Board of Education (BOE), located on the grounds of Flanders Elementary School, to file a FOIA request related to the superintendent’s expense account. He was escorted from the property due to safety concerns and denied access on July 16, again due to safety concerns. Days later, on July 17, he returned and prevented the Flanders Elementary School principal from entering the building, leading to the police being called.
On December 26, 2018, Godbout appeared at the East Lyme Town Hall to request a fee waiver from the First Selectman’s administrative assistant. When Godbout was told he would have to speak to the First Selectman, who was not present, Godbout “became enraged and acted in a threatening manner and shouted obscenities at the assistant.” The female assistant hit a panic button summoning the police. He was later arrested for disturbing the peace.
According to the PRVR, Godbout also submitted requests under an alias, then later showed up on town property claiming to be that alias. On September 21, 2018, a BOE administrative assistant emailed Phillip Miller, notifying him that documents he had requested were ready to be viewed and asking him to contact the finance director to view them at the BOE’s office. On September 27, a man who identified himself as Phillip Miller but who town authorities say was really David Godbout, showed up at the BOE offices stating he had an appointment with the finance director about a FOIA request. Godbout was denied entrance and police were notified.
These and other incidents, plus Godbout’s pattern of requests, led the town to submit the PRVR, writing Godbout’s “requests and conduct serve to harass and disrupt the orderly conduct of Town business.” The town and BOE sought “appropriate relief commensurate with the above vexatious conduct, including an order that the Town and its departments, boards, and commissions, including the East Lyme Board of Education, need not comply with future requests from Godbout for a period of one year, together with such other and further relief as the Commission deems appropriate.”
The FOIC held two hearings on the matter, on September 16, 2019 and October 7, 2019.
Prior to the initial hearing, Godbout filed nine motions with the commission, including an initial motion to have the hearing officer dismissed on the grounds he was not impartial, a motion to dismiss the matter, a motion to dismiss the petition on grounds it was not properly certified, and a motion to reconsider the denial of his motion to have the hearing officer dismiss. The FOIC rejected all nine motions.
At the hearing, given the opportunity to cross-examine the petitioners’ witnesses, Godbout’s counsel asked each witness a single question: whether during their interaction with Godbout they at any time wanted to physically attack him. Godbout turned down the opportunity to testify on his behalf or present additional witnesses, citing a pending criminal matter related to the December 26, 2018 incident at the East Lyme Town Hall. Godbout also did not introduce any evidence on his behalf.
Following the close of evidence at the second hearing, Godbout filed nine additional motions, including a motion seeking to reopen the hearing to address alleged perjury by witnesses appearing on behalf of East Lyme, a motion to reopen the hearing and introduce new evidence, and a motion to open a hearing seeking to present evidence related to a different complaint. Again, Godbout’s motions were all denied.
In its analysis of the town’s claims, the FOIC dedicated space to analyzing the precise meaning of language in the law allowing PRVR cases to be brought, setting a precedent that has since been used in subsequent PRVR decisions made by the FOIC.
“The Commission is mindful that the discretion it is afforded to make determinations under this provision is significant, and that the potential ramifications to a requester whose rights may be impacted for a period of up to one year are significant as well.” they wrote in their decision, also emphasizing the need to “appropriately balance” an individual’s right to access and the “legitimate need” of government to be free of vexatious requesters.
The commission noted that the law places the burden of proof to prove that a requester is vexatious on the petitioner and that, as part of their claim against Godbout, East Lyme had claimed that Godbout had a “vexatious history” and had engaged in a pattern of conduct amounting to an “abuse of the right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act” and “interferes with the operation of the agency,” both of which the statute requires petitioners to demonstrate.
In examining the meaning of the term “vexatious,” the commission adopted Merriam-Webster’s common dictionary definition of the word, meaning “causing vexation: distressing; intended to harass.” The commission further gave meaning to the phrases “pattern of conduct,” “abuse of the right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act,” and “interference with the operation of the agency,” which appear in the statute but are not defined.
The commission held that a pattern of conduct required “a showing of recurring incidents or repetitive behavior on the part of the requester.” It further held that abuse of the right to access information required an assessment of “the cumulative nature of the requester’s requests and conduct, and their effect on the petitioning agency.” Lastly, the commission held that finding whether a requester interfered with an agency’s operation required an assessment of “whether the requests and conduct exhibited by the requester significantly obstructs or hinders the petitioning agency’s abilities to carry out its responsibilities and functions.”
In Godbout’s case, the FOIC found in favor of the town, finding Godbout’s requests were voluminous in nature and content, that he made more requests than anyone else in the town, and that his requests were intended to frustrate agencies. The FOIC also found some of Godbout’s requests were intended to harass employees to whom requests were directed, and that his conduct was at times disrespectful and taunting in nature. Additionally, the commission found Godbout’s requests made a “mockery of public access” and that he did not appear to be satisfied with responses he received to them, leading to “additional requests and accompanying conduct.”
In the FOIC’s ruling in favor of East Lyme, the commission wrote town officials had “more than met their burden” in establishing that Godbout was a vexatious requester. As a result, the town and board of education were not required to comply with public records requests filed by Godbout for a year following the February 26, 2020 date of the commission’s final decision.
Since Godbout’s case, the FOIC has received five additional vexatious requester petitions directed against four different people.
The second case the commission received was brought by the town of Groton against resident Thomas Potter. As with Godbout, Groton detailed not only the number of requests Potter submitted, but also a pattern of behavior related to the way he submitted and followed up on requests, which the town characterized as hostile. According to the petition, it was “impossible to count the number of separate document requests [Potter] has made, due to the fact that more than 90% of the emails contain multiple requests which are compound, some of which are later ‘re-stated.’” A number of requests also asked for interpretation and research. The town estimated Potter had submitted 150 requests between February and July 2020, when the PRVR was submitted. But Potter died shortly after the PRVR was submitted and the town subsequently withdrew the petition.
The FOIC’s third and fourth PRVR cases were both brought by the city of Stamford against resident Matthew Olson. An initial petition was filed on July 16, 2020. That case was administratively withdrawn on October 29, 2021, as the FOIC only has a year to act on a petition. The case expired without a hearing. However, Stamford refiled its petition on November 30, 2021.
Stamford’s initial petition listed fifteen FOIA requests sent by Olson to various city departments, most of which focused on the city’s legal and police departments. Olson’s requests began following a July 24, 2019, interaction with police, who reported to his North Stamford residence in response to a call that his vehicle was parked on an adjacent public road. Olson’s initial request, filed the day of the incident, sought information on the person who had called police to complain about his car. According to the FOIC’s final decision, “This discrete interaction apparently set Respondent Olson on a quest to determine who had contacted the police about his vehicle, and when he did not receive the responses he sought, he responded by bombarding City departments with numerous and voluminous FOI requests and emails.”
By the time Stamford filed its second petition, Olson had filed at least 32 FOIA requests with the city. Eight requests submitted between September 18, 2020, and November 3, 2021, focused on the city’s legal departments and attorneys hired to represent the city in its initial PRVR filing.
As with previous cases, Stamford’s argument to the FOIC against Olson focused not only on his pattern of filing requests, but his behavior. For example, on July 30, 2019, Olson sent four emails to the city’s Acting Chief of Police, as well as various other city officials in the space of three and a half hours. Those emails contained language accusing officials of responding to a “false report” allegedly filed by a “rich white woman” and harassing Olson without any cause.
In an email sent to the city’s police department following the July 24, 2019 interaction with police, Olson characterized the incident as hostile, writing that the officer showed up “fully armed, presumably prepared to kill me, my children and/or my dog if he felt threatened.” That email was sent the day after his request was filed. In the same email, Olson claimed he had experienced “multiple episodes of threatening and harassment” at the hands of Stamford police. He further alleged police were targeting him because he was half-Hispanic and protecting the complainant because of his belief that she was a rich, white woman.
Olson continued to regularly email city officials, using language the town describes in the PRVR as “accusatory and offensive.”
“I wonder if you intentionally avoided any report so that the media would not take notice. I also wonder how accurate your FBI crime statistics are,” Olson wrote to the Acting Chief of Police on July 31, 2019.
In another email sent on August 6, 2019, Olson wrote again to the acting police chief, “In 2019, there is no excuse for a police department to continue to treat citizens differently based on their socioeconomic background or the color of their skin.” Similar emails continued through November 2019.
Olson’s claims of discrimination and harassment continued during hearings in the fourth PRVR case. Following the town’s filing of PRVR 4, Olson filed a response with the FOIC, calling the petition a “racist manifesto” and accusing the commission of providing the town a platform to “defame and attack” him on the basis of race. He further accused commissioners and their staff of being racist in an email. Olson also filed several requests to postpone hearing dates set by the FOIC, including a request to postpone a September 12, 2022, hearing because he planned to visit his son at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Olson, who walked out of the final hearing in the case without notice, later accused the hearing officer of “pissing” on the integrity of his son. Olson filed a motion to reconvene the case on October 14, 2022, which the commission denied. On November 4, 2022, the commission filed its decision finding that Olson was a vexatious requester.
The fifth PRVR case heard by the FOIC is the only one heard so far to find against the petitioners. The town of Thomaston, Connecticut, filed a PRVR case against resident Nancy Griswold and her son William Griswold on October 25, 2022. At the time the complaint was filed, Nancy Griswold had filed three FOIA requests and three follow-up requests submitted to Zoning Enforcement Officer Stacy Sefcik. Sefcik, along with the town’s zoning commission, joined the town as petitioners.
Griswold’s initial FOIA request sought all reports of zoning enforcement activities from 2019 to March 23, 2021, as well as Sefcik’s resume and employment records. Griswold’s subsequent requests sought similar information. According to the petition, Sefcik sought to comply with the requests but did not receive responses to requests for clarification and also did not send the required payment for her initial request.
At the time the petition was filed, the Griswolds and Sefcik were involved in litigation related to an ongoing enforcement action in the town. According to the petition, Griswold was frequently emotional during court hearings and insisted she was not guilty of the zoning violation. Sefcik felt threatened by the behavior demonstrated by William Griswold at several court hearings and conferences that were a part of the case. The petition alleges William Griswold glared at Sefcik and shared, without prompting, that Sefcik’s son was an Eagle Scout, which she had not revealed to the Griswolds.
On March 24, 2023, the commission filed notice that the Executive Director of the FOIC had reviewed the petition and determined it did not warrant a hearing because it failed “to detail conduct that demonstrates a vexatious history of requests.” These five cases have laid the groundwork for the case now unfolding in Weston, Connecticut.
The FOIC recently docketed hearings in the most recent PRVR case brought before it. At the center of the case are Gregg and Jennifer Haythorn, a married couple from Weston. The couple not only have a long history of filing FOIA requests with their town but of filing complaints with the FOIC about the conduct of Weston officials in response to those requests.
The Haythorns have sought documents from the town related, among other things, to Weston taxpayer and student interests, including school capital construction projects. As an initial PRVR filed against the Haythorns by Weston’s Board of Education (BOE) and Weston Public Schools (WPS) notes, the couple filed 115 FOIA requests between September 2019 and February 27, 2023, the date the petition was filed. That PRVR not only asked the FOIC to name the Haythorns vexatious requesters, but that the commission continue to deny leave to schedule hearings in the Haythorns’ appeals.
The commission voted unanimously to deny leave to allow hearings to be scheduled in two complaints filed by the Haythorns during a January 25, 2023 meeting following a pair of identical requests made by the commission’s executive director. The requests addressed a pair of complaints brought by the Haythorns, one of which was related to a complaint against Weston and its Facility Optimization Committee and the other which was related to a complaint against Weston’s schools. The requests were filed on January 5, 2023 and alleged that allowing the Haythorns’ complaints to proceed to a hearing would abuse the commission’s administrative process and “perpetuate an injustice.”
In support of these charges, the requests cited a loss of agency personnel that was diminishing the FOIC’s resources, the large number of complaints the Haythorns had previously filed with the FOIC, and the Haythorns’ failure to win most of those complaints.
“In the matters which the Commission has fully adjudicated involving records requests, the Commission has dismissed all but one of such complaints in their entirety, concluding that the various Weston respondents had not claimed exemptions to disclosure, but rather provided massive amounts of records as promptly as was feasible, in addition to carrying out their many other duties.” the executive director’s request reads.
In addition, the request notes that “hundreds of other individuals” were awaiting the opportunity to appear before the FOIC. The commission voted to approve another request not to schedule hearings in a third complaint filed by the Haythorns at its next meeting, on February 8, 2023.
The Haythorns were successful in filing a complaint against Weston and the BOE on the grounds that the entities violated FOIA’s open meeting laws requirements. Prior to a May 17, 2021 meeting by Weston’s board of education, the Haythorns sent a letter to the board’s vice-chair, informing her they intended to seek the chair’s resignation during the meeting. In response, the vice-chair drafted a letter of support for the chair, intended to be read at the meeting, and then sent the letter to other board members. Following this, the vice-chair sent a text message to members of the board asking them to read and respond to the document and adding “Keep in mind FOIA when responding to the email.” Responses occurred over both text and email.
The FOIC found that the conversation of the draft letter constituted a meeting under FOIA and violated FOIA’s meeting requirements because it was not public. According to the FOIC’s decision, when the board members realized their communications were improper, they issued a public apology on May 25, 2021, and sought FOIA training from a private law firm. As a result, despite finding the town guilty of violating FOIA’s open meeting requirements, the FOIC declined to impose an additional civil penalty against the town, as the Haythorns requested.
The initial PRVR case brought against the Haythorns by the BOE and WPS was rejected by the FOIC on April 5, 2023 because it was not sworn under penalty of false statement, as required by state law. An identical PRVR was resubmitted by the town on April 20, 2023.
Additionally, the town of Weston filed a PRVR against the Haythorns on March 3, 2023. On March 4, the Haythorns emailed the town Board of Selectmen seeking to work towards resolution of the PRVR, which the board agreed to do.
According to documents provided by the FOIC, the board requested the Haythorns withdraw all pending ethics complaints against Ira Bloom, the town’s attorney, and Berchem Moses PC, his firm. The Haythorns did so on March 9. They also agreed to withdraw pending and prior record requests made to the town under FOIA, pending appeals and complaints against the town with the FOIC, and pending ethics complaints against other town officials.
The remaining PRVR, representing WPS and BOE, will be heard by the FOIC. According to an April 2, 2023 email sent by the Haythorns to the FOIC, WPS, and BOE acknowledging the town’s signing of their agreement to withdraw their PRVR, the couple also reached out to the Board of Education and Weston Public Schools with a similar offer but did not receive an answer. The couple reiterated their offer to settle. An attorney for the WPS and BOE responded a day later, stating that withdrawing the PRVR would “not be in the best interest of the School District at this time.”
“The School District exercised significant patience, restraint, and good faith for years in withstanding the vexatious conduct of the Haythorns with respect to their use of [FOIA] as a sword against the School District. Many attempts to resolve FOIA matters amicably through the ombudsman process failed because the Haythorns did not wish to settle on reasonable term, thereby further burdening the School District and the [FOIC.]” the email continued.
More details about the alleged vexatious behavior are in the PRVR, which draws on the commission’s decision in Godbout’s case. The petition notes the FOIC labeled Godbout vexatious because of his voluminous and repetitive requests, his disrespectful and disruptive behavior, and because he was never satisfied with answers and his conduct disrupted the ability of East Lyme officials to do their jobs. The PRVR alleges the Haythorns’ behavior and pattern of submitting requests matches Godbout’s, citing not only the unprecedented number of requests the Haythorns have submitted, some requesting 20 years of records, but because of their conduct. The petition alleges the Haythorns have communicated in “a highly uncivil and offensive manner,” citing snippets from emails sent by the couple.
They further characterize the Haythorns as litigious, noting the number of complaints the Haythorns have filed with the FOIC. “The basis for many of the FOIA complaints,” the petition states, “is the Respondents’ belief that the Petitioners have failed to turn over all documents responsive to their voluminous requests. This is also the basis for many of the Respondents’ repetitive FOIA requests.”
The Haythorns provided background and documentation for this investigation.
The case against the Haythorns currently awaits a final decision from the FOIC. As the commission considers temporarily restricting the FOIA rights of residents for the sixth time, it’s worth noting that Connecticut is one of a handful of states with a law labeling certain public records requesters as vexatious. Hawaii and Maryland also have vexatious requester laws, while Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas have considered but ultimately not passed similar legislation.
Under Hawaii’s law, passed in 2017, a state agency can request the Office of Information Practices (OIP) label a person a vexatious requester if they have a “clear pattern of making records requests that are manifestly excessive or in bad faith and interfere with an agency’s responsibilities.” In determining whether a person is a vexatious requester, the OIP is directed to consider whether the requester has submitted multiple identical or substantially similar requests for either records they have already received or been told do not exist. As with Connecticut’s law, the burden of proving someone is a vexatious requester falls on the agency requesting the label. In Hawaii, if a requester is found to be vexatious, their rights to submit public records requests can be abridged for up to two years.
Similar to Connecticut’s FOIC, Maryland has an independent Compliance Board that enforces its Public Information Act, the state’s equivalent of FOIA. Under a 2021 law, the board has the authority to review and resolve complaints alleging that a record request is “frivolous, vexatious, or in bad faith.” If a request is found to be vexatious, the petitioning agency can either ignore the request at the center of the complaint or respond to a less burdensome version of the request.
At the federal level, the FOIA Advisory Committee has twice considered the possibility of implementing some form of vexatious requester law. The committee, which was established by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2014 to foster dialogue between the agency and requesters, first discussed vexatious requesters during its inaugural term.
The transcript from a January 27, 2015 meeting note the committee had previously discussed “a history of a small number of requesters flooding agencies with requests” and that reducing fees charged for FOIA requests would make the problem worse. The subcommittee noted that federal agencies didn’t then have a way to deal with such requesters.
In a June 2022 final report produced by the 2020-2022 term of the subcommittee, the subject of vexatious requesters arose once again in the broader context of FOIA fees. And again, the report notes that vexatious requesters can consume agency resources, but that the current provisions of FOIA don’t provide agencies with a way to obtain relief.
“We recognize that defining a vexatious request or requester would be a complex task, and that the requester community is likely to be especially wary of sanctions against requesters. Thus, if future Committee members take on this challenge, we suggest that requesters comprise the majority of the members of the relevant working group.” the report concludes.
But can issues with FOIA really be laid at the feet of troublesome requesters? And should any improvements to public records law, especially at the state level, target those requesters?
Dan Barrett, who sits on the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition, is skeptical that vexatious requesters are the problem with open records compliance. Barrett instead pointed to weaknesses in Connecticut’s FOIA law.
“The statute is unenforceable.” said Barrett. Barrett also added that because there is no enforcement mechanism penalizing agencies who don’t abide by FOIA, agencies tend not to abide by FOIA.
Connecticut’s FOIA law requires agencies to alert requesters of a denial of a request to inspect records within four business days of receiving a request. In some cases relating to more complicated requests, agencies can extend this up to ten days. The law does not provide any sort of timeline by which agencies must turn over records to requesters.
A requester can appeal a denial to the FOIC, but only has thirty days from the date they receive the denial to do so.
Barrett pointed to the city of Bridgeport, which has been brought before the FOIC multiple times for FOIA noncompliance to highlight the commission’s lack of ability to enforce its findings. “The FOIC ends every decision against the city with an order to henceforth comply with the law.” Barrett said, noting they’ve done so multiple times with apparently no affect.