The New Mexico Court of Appeals Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling in part and sided with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) in reaffirming that the awarding of attorney fees is important to enforcement of the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).
The decision overturned a finding by a district court that because governmental entities had acted in good faith in denying a public records request, the records requestor was not entitled to the attorney fees it had incurred in litigating the issue. FOG filed an amicus curiae brief urging reversal of this decision. The Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that if a public body does not allow the inspection of public records, even in good faith, those records may later become the basis for an award of attorney fees in IPRA litigation. The Court also held, in accordance with FOG’s brief, that the district court had erred in denying the requestor its attorney fees incurred in a previous appeal in the case.
The records requestor and plaintiff in the case is the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association. The Association had brought suit against several defendants, including KNME-TV, the University of New Mexico, the state Interstate Stream Commission, and the Office of the New Mexico State Engineer. Victor Marshall is the attorney for the plaintiff.
The Court confirmed a portion of the district court’s ruling that held that the defendants had properly denied a portion of the records request that did not directly request certain records that were later produced in the litigation.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling highlights that the attorney fee provisions of IPRA are very important to ensuring access to public records. The Court held that “An award of attorney fees, along with costs and damages, helps ensure the entire IPRA enforcement process is virtually costless to a successful litigant.”
Greg Williams, former FOG president and author of FOG’s amicus brief, said “In handing down this ruling, the Court of Appeals agreed with FOG’s position that fee awards are a very significant part of IPRA. By enforcing the requirement that noncompliance with IPRA will result in a fee award, the Court has reaffirmed the importance of unburdened access to public records.”