Court of Appeals Sides with FOG

The New Mexico Court of Appeals Monday affirmed a lower court ruling obtained by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG) holding that Corizon Health, which formerly provided medical care for state prison inmates, must turn over requested public records and pay legal fees for violating the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA).

The original lawsuit came about as Corizon refused to release to the Albuquerque Journal, the Santa Fe New Mexican and FOG settlement agreements it made with prisoners who had sued Corizon over alleged malpractice and sexual abuse by a physician. Then-New Mexican Editor Ray Rivera asked for FOG’s help in getting the settlement documents as the New Mexico Department of Corrections denied the original request.  It said the documents were not in its possession but were held by Corizon.  The district court ruled that settlement documents are public records subject to disclosure and that Corizon had to comply with IPRA because it was performing a public function (providing prison medical services) under contract with a state agency.  Corizon appealed and withheld the settlements pending the outcome of the appeal.

The Appeals Court decision reaffirms the two key holdings from the district court: that settlement documents are public records and that private entities performing a public function for a public agency are subject to IPRA. Therefore, the Court of Appeals decided that Corizon must disclose all the requested settlement agreements.

In addition, in the original district court decision, Judge Raymond Ortiz said Corizon must pay $37,535 in attorneys’ fees to attorneys Daniel Yohalem and Katharine Murray who represented the organizations that sought the records. He wrote that awarding reasonable legal fees encourages attorneys to take the cases of private citizens who file lawsuits seeking to enforce IPRA.  The Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Ortiz’s ruling on fees, as well.

“The Court’s detailed and thorough opinion will be very important in other cases down the road.  It upholds the public’s interest in settlement agreements, recognizes the liability of government contractors, and affirms the use of the writ of mandamus abbreviated procedure in IPRA cases,” said Dan Yohalem, a member of the FOG board. “This case is significant as it strongly and properly enforces our state’s public records law and recognized the importance of attorneys’ fees in combatting noncompliance with IPRA.”

“This is a victory for every New Mexican as it will help all of us for years to come,” Melanie Majors, FOG executive director, said. “In handing down this ruling, the Court of Appeals agrees with FOG’s position that settlement documents, even by third-party government contractors, must be open to inspection and that fee awards are a very significant part of the IPRA.”

Majors said this is the second time this year the Appeals Court has sided with the FOG concerning the enforcement of the IPRA.