The Georgia Court of Appeals has sided with The Times in upholding an order requiring the city of Gainesville to turn over certain documents related to the resignation of former city manager Bryan Shuler.
The newspaper sued the city last year after Gainesville officials refused to release a letter at the center of a sexual harassment investigation without redacting the names of two city employees.
Hall County Superior Court Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver ruled in June that the city violated the state’s Open Records Act and ordered officials to provide The Times with an unedited copy of an anonymous letter that accused Shuler of sexually harassing two city employees.
City officials said the allegations were without merit, but Shuler resigned in November 2008.
The Times wanted an unedited version of the letter in order to learn more about how the city handled the investigation. But city officials would only release the letter with the two names redacted, citing an open records exemption that allows governments to withhold “medical or veterinary records and similar files, the disclosure of which would be an invasion of personal privacy.”
Oliver ruled that the employees’ names did not fall under that exemption. The Court of Appeals agreed.
“The evidence supports the judgment,” Judge Herbert E. Phipps wrote in an order that was unusually brief for an appellate court ruling.
The Court of Appeals also upheld Oliver’s ruling against The Times in a request for the city to pay its legal fees.
The Court of Appeals typically issues opinions in cases it hears, which then serve as precedent for similar cases in the future. The court’s ruling in the newspaper’s case simply reaffirms Oliver’s order. It offers no opinion and will not serve as precedent.
“They basically said there’s no sense in writing an opinion,” said Steven Gilliam, one of the attorneys representing The Times.
“Which means Judge Oliver’s opinion was so well-written, they really saw no reason for them to add anything to it.”
The newspaper was also represented by David Hudson, legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association.
Sam Harben, a lawyer who represented the city in the appeal, called the Court of Appeals order “unusual, in it did not discuss the reasons why it entered the order it did. They usually explain how they reach decisions.”
The city of Gainesville has 10 days from the date of the ruling to file a motion for reconsideration with the Court of Appeals. If that fails, the city could ask the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the matter.
“The chances of that are pretty slim, especially if the Court of Appeals did not deem it worth writing an opinion about,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam said city officials should turn over the unedited documents in question.
“That’s what Judge Oliver told them to do, and that’s what this ruling tells them to do,” Gilliam said. “Judge Oliver’s order was pretty clear.”
Gainesville city manager Kip Padgett said council members have not yet met with attorneys to discuss their options.
Harben did not know when he would meet with the city council or whether council members are inclined to appeal the case further.
Last year, the council voted 3-2 to appeal Oliver’s ruling, with council members George Wangemann and Bob Hamrick opposed to appealing.
Dennis Stockton, publisher of The Times, said Monday that the newspaper was “not at all surprised that the Court of Appeals has upheld what we thought was a very well-reasoned ruling by Judge Oliver."
“We have been surprised at the city’s repeated insistence on continuing to fight this case when the law seems so obvious,” Stockton said. “We think it is very important that all government entities remember that the people of Georgia have a right under the law to access and review government documents. It’s unfortunate in this case that so much time and money was expended unnecessarily simply because the city did not want to do what the law says.”