Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Freedom of Information Commission

Supreme Court of Connecticut

June 28, 2016

PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OFANIMALS, INC.
v.
FREEDOM OFINFORMATION COMMISSIONET AL.

          Argued February 26, 2016.

          Charles H. Walsh, assistant attorney general, with whom were Kerry Anne Colson, assistant attorney general, and, on the brief, George Jepsen, attorney general, for the appellants in Docket Nos.SC19593 and SC19594 (defendant University of Connecticut Health Center et al.).

          Martina Bernstein, pro hac vice, with whom, on the brief, were Joseph J. Blyskal III and Gabriel Z. Walters, pro hac vice, for the appellee in Docket Nos. S.C. 19593 and S.C. 19594 (plaintiff).

          Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, McDonald and Espinosa, Js.

          OPINION

          PALMER, J.

         In these appeals, we must determine the standard of review that applies to a determination that public records are exempt from the disclosure provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (act), General Statutes § 1-200 et seq., pursuant to General Statutes § 1-210 (b) (19), [1] because there are reasonable grounds to believe that their disclosure may result in a safety risk. The plaintiff, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., submitted a freedom of information request to the defendant University of Connecticut Health Center (Health Center), requesting copies of all correspondence between the Health Center and the National Institutes of Health regarding potential non-compliance with federal animal welfare guidelines. The Health Center produced the requested documents but redacted the names of the individuals who had violated federal protocols and grant identification numbers that would make it possible to identify those individuals. The plaintiff then filed a complaint against the Health Center with the named defendant, the Freedom of Information Commission (commission). While the complaint was pending, the Health Center requested a safety risk determination from the defendant Commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services (department)[2]pursuant to § 1-210 (b) (19) and (d).[3] The department determined that there were ‘‘reasonable grounds to believe that [the] disclosure of this [redacted] material may result in a safety risk to persons or property’’ and directed the Health Center to withhold the redacted information. The commission upheld this determination. The plaintiff appealed from the commission’s decision to the trial court, which sustained the appeal and ordered the Health Center to disclose the redacted information. The Health Center and the department then brought separate appeals, [4] claiming that the trial court incorrectly determined that the commission had applied the wrong standard of review when it sustained the plaintiff’s appeal. We agree with the Health Center and the department that the commission applied the proper standard of review. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court. We further conclude that the case should be remanded to that court so that it may decide whether the commission, upon application of the proper standard of review, properly upheld the determination of the department.

         The record reveals the following facts that the commission found or that are undisputed. On October 18, 2012, the plaintiff submitted a freedom of information request to the Health Center for all correspondence between the Health Center and the National Institutes of Health concerning potential noncompliance with federal animal welfare guidelines from January 1, 2009, until October 18, 2012. Thereafter, the Health Center provided sixty-one pages of redacted records. Some of the redactions were the names of employees involved in animal research and some were federal grant numbers, which could beused to identify the researchers working on the grants. By letter dated December 6, 2012, the plaintiff complained to the commission that the Health Center had violated the act by redacting the information.

         The Health Center subsequently wrote to the department requesting a safety risk determination pursuant to § 1-210 (b) (19) and (d). The Health Center attached to its letter two letters from the Department of Public Works dated August 1, 2008, and June 16, 2010, regarding previous freedom of information requests related to the Health Center’s animal research programs.[5] In both letters, the Department of Public Works determined that disclosure of the identities of persons involved in animal research posed a safety risk and, therefore, that the information was exempt from the disclosure provisions of the act. Partly on the basis of these letters, the department determined in the present case that ‘‘there [were] reasonable grounds to believe that disclosure of this material [identifying the researchers who had failed to comply with federal animal welfare guidelines] may result in a safety risk to persons or property.’’[6] Accordingly, the department directed the Health Center ‘‘to withhold, or redact accordingly, the information’’ that would disclose the identity of the animal researchers who had violated federal animal welfare guidelines.

         Thereafter, the commission conducted a hearing on the plaintiff’s complaint and concluded that the department had ‘‘reasonable grounds to believe that disclosure of the names and grant numbers of researchers reported for failing to comply with animal welfare guidelines may create a safety risk . . . .’’ In reaching this conclusion, the commission relied on the Superior Court decision in Commissioner of Correction v. Freedom of Information Commission, Superior Court, judicial district of New Britain, Docket No. CV-07-4015438-S (November 3, 2008) (46 Conn.L.Rptr. 533, 535), for the proposition that it was required ‘‘to determine whether the [department’s] reasons were pretextual and not bona fide, or irrational.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) The commission concluded that the department’s ‘‘reasons were not irrational and that the [department] acted in good faith and without pretext in believing that disclosure of the redacted information may result in a risk of harm.’’

         The plaintiff appealed from the commission’s decision to the trial court. The trial court concluded that, although the standard set forth in Commissioner of Correction v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 46 Conn.L.Rptr. 535, ‘‘may be relevant, it is not the standard set’’ by this court. Rather, the trial court, quoting this court’s decision in Director, Dept. of Information Technology v. Freedom of Information Commission, 274 Conn. 179, 191–92, 874 A.2d 785 (2005), concluded that ‘‘[t]he burden of proving the applicability of an exception [to disclosure under the act] rests [on] the party claiming it. . . . In particular, [t]his burden requires the claimant of the exemption to provide more than conclusory language, generalized allegations or mere arguments of counsel. Rather, a sufficiently detailed record must reflect the reasons why an exemption applies to the materials requested.’’ (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Applying this standard, the trial court concluded that, although the Health Center had presented evidence that there was a safety risk to the general community of animal researchers, that risk was not the relevant one because the names of those researchers already were in the public domain through the publication of scholarly articles. The court concluded that the relevant risk was the risk to animal researchers who had failed to comply with the relevant research protocols and that the Health Center had presented no evidence of such a risk. Although Raymond Philbrick, the director of security for the department, had testified at the hearing before the commission that the release of the names of the researchers who had violated the research protocols could make them ‘‘more of a target’’ for a ‘‘fringe group’’ or for individuals opposed to animal research, the court concluded that the testimony was mere opinion and conjecture, and did not satisfy the standard set forth in Director, Dept. of Information Technology. Accordingly, the trial court sustained the plaintiff’s appeal, reversed the commission’s decision and ordered the Health Center to disclose the redacted information.

         These appeals followed. The Health Center and the department contend that the trial court failed to properly distinguish between the scope of the commission’s review of a safety risk assessment made by the department pursuant to § 1-210 (b) (19) and (d), which is set forth in Commissioner of Correction v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 46 Conn.L.Rptr. 535, and the department’s burden of proof, which is set forth in Director, Dept. of Information Technology v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 274 Conn. 191–92. The Health Center and the department further contend that, under the standard of review set forth in Commissioner of Correction, both the commission and the trial court are required to defer to the department’s assessment. The plaintiff contends that the Health Center and the department waived any claim that Director, Dept. of Information Technology did not set forth the proper standard of review when the department conceded in the trial court that the standard set forth in that case applied tothe department’s determination.[7] The plaintiff further contends that the trial court properly found that, under Director, Dept. of Information Technology, the Health Center and the department failed to satisfy their burden of proving that disclosure of information concerning the identities of researchers who violated animal care protocols would pose a safety risk. We conclude that the claim is reviewable and we agree with the Health Center and the department that the commission applied the correct standard of review in determining that the safety risk exemption applied to the redacted information.[8]

         We first address the plaintiff’s claim that the Health Center and the department waived their claim that Commissioner of Correction v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 46 Conn.L.Rptr. 535, and not this court’s decision in Director, Dept. of Information Technology v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 274 Conn. 191–92, supplies the proper standard of review. We disagree. The commission argued to the trial court that, ‘‘under [§ 1-210 (b) (19)], [it is] clear that the message to the commission is that [the department is] entitled to deference.’’ It further argued that the Superior Court decision in Commissioner of Correction was the only decision involving a statute directing an agency other than the commission to determine whether an exemption applies in the first instance. In addition, the commission questioned ‘‘how much value [Director, Dept. of Information Technology] has . . . because . . . in [that] case, the [plaintiff] did not follow [§ 1-120 (b) (19)]. So when the [court] reviewed the commission’s decision, it was . . . doing so outside the framework that had been established by the legislature . . . .’’[9] Although the commission did not cite the standard set forth in Commissioner of Correction in its brief to the trial court, which the department joined, the commission expressly contended that the commission and the trial court should defer to the department’s safety risk assessment. Specifically, the commission contended that, ‘‘[when] a statutory provision [such as § 1-210 (b) (19)] is subject to more than one plausible construction, the one favored by the agency charged with enforcing the statute will be given deference, ’’ and noted that the department, which was charged with performing the safety risk assessment in the first instance, had found that disclosure of the redacted information would have created such a risk. This is essentially the same standard as the standard that the Superior Court applied in Commissioner of Correction. Moreover, the trial court, in its memorandum of decision, expressly addressed the issue of whether Commissioner of Correction provided the proper standard of proof and concluded that it did not. Accordingly, it is clear to us that the essence of the claim that the Health Center and the department raise on appeal was properly before the trial court.

         We conclude, therefore, that we may review the claim that, pursuant to § 1-210 (b) (19), the commission and the trial court were required to defer to the department’s determination that the disclosure of the redacted information would create a safety risk if the department provided reasons that were bona fide and not pretextual or irrational. See Commissioner of Correction v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 46 Conn.L.Rptr. 535. This is a question of statutory interpretation, over which our review is plenary.[10] See, e.g., State v. Crespo, 317 Conn. 1, 8, 115 A.3d 447 (2015); see also Crews v. Crews, 295 Conn. 153, 161, 989 A.2d 1060 (2010) (‘‘[d]etermining the appropriate standard of review is a question of law, and as a result, it is subject to plenary review’’). ‘‘The process of statutory interpretation involves the determination of the meaning of the statutory language as applied to the facts of the case, including the question of whether the language does so apply. . . . In seeking to determine [the] meaning [of a statute], General Statutes § 1-2z directs us first to consider the text of the statute itself and its relationship to other statutes.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) State v. Crespo, supra, 9.

         We begin with the language of § 1-210 (b) (19). That statute exempts records from the disclosure requirements of the act ‘‘when there are reasonable grounds to believe disclosure may result in a safety risk, including the risk of harm to any person . . . . Such reasonable grounds shall be determined . . . by the [department], after consultation with the chief executive officer of an executive branch state agency . . . .’’ General Statutes § 1-210 (b) (19). Although this court has not previously construed this language in § 1-210 (b) (19) for the purpose of determining the scope of the department’s discretion in making the safety risk determination and the scope of the commission’s review of that determination, [11] it has construed similar language in a related statute. In Van Norstrand v. Freedom of Information Commission, 211 Conn. 339, 559 A.2d 200 (1989), this court considered the scope of General Statutes (Rev. to 1989) § 1-19 (b) (1), which is now codified at § 1-210 (b) (1), and which exempts from the disclosure provisions of the act ‘‘[p]reliminary drafts or notes provided the public agency has determined that the public interest in withholding such documents clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure . . . .’’ We noted in Van Norstrand that the public agency referred to in the statute is the agency to which the freedom of information request was directed. See Van Norstrand v. Freedom of Information Commission, supra, 345. We then stated that, ‘‘[a]lthough the statute places the responsibility for making [the] determination [to withhold the documents] on the public agency involved, the statute’s language strongly suggests that the agency may not abuse its discretion in making the decision to withhold disclosure. The agency must, therefore, indicate the reasons for its determination to withhold disclosure and those reasons must not be frivolous or patently unfounded.’’ (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. We held that, ‘‘[h]aving concluded that there had been a good faith consideration of the effect ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.