Attorney General of Florida — Opinion
January 27, 2000
RE: COUNTIES — RECORDS — ATTORNEYS — records of outside attorneys bills held by county risk management office not confidential. ss. 119.011, 119.07, 768.28(15), Fla. Stat.
County risk management, outside attorney bills
Robert A. Butterworth Attorney General
Mr. David W. Wagner Alachua County Attorney Post Office Box 2877 Gainesville, Florida 32602-2877
Dear Mr. Wagner:
On behalf of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners, you ask substantially the following question:
Are records of outside attorney fee bills for the defense of the county, as well as its employees who are sued individually, for alleged civil rights violations subject to disclosure under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, where those records are maintained by the County Risk Management Office pursuant to the county’s risk management program?
Records of outside attorney fee bills for the defense of the county, as well as its employees who are sued individually, for alleged civil rights violations are public records subject to disclosure, even though those records may be maintained by the County Risk Management Office pursuant to the county’s risk management program.
Section 119.011(1), Florida Statutes, defines “Public records” for purposes of Florida’s Public Records Law to include
“all documents, papers, letters . . . or other material, regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.”
The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted this definition to include all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business that are used to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge.
Clearly, records of attorney fee bills received by the county’s risk management office under the county’s risk management program constitute public records. As such, these records are subject to disclosure in the absence of a statute making them confidential or exempt from disclosure. In Attorney General Opinion 85-89, this office concluded that a contract between a county and a private law firm for the provision of legal services, and documentation for invoices submitted by the firm to the county, did not fall within the work product exemption afforded by section 119.07(3), Florida Statutes. If the bills and invoices contain information exempted by section 119.07(3)(l), Florida Statutes — that is, mental impressions, conclusions, litigation strategies, or legal theories — the exempt material may be deleted but the remainder must be disclosed.
You refer to section 768.28(15), Florida Statutes, authorizing the state and its agencies and subdivisions to be self-insured, to enter into risk management programs, or to purchase liability insurance, or any combination thereof, in anticipation of any claim, judgment, or claims bill they may be liable to pay pursuant to section 768.28, Florida Statutes. Subsection (15)(b) of the statute provides:
“Claims files maintained by any risk management program
administered by the state, its agencies, and its subdivisions are confidential and exempt from the provisions of s. 119.07(1) and s. 24(a), Art. I of the State Constitution until termination of all litigation and settlement of all claims arising out of the same incident, although portions of the claims files may remain exempt, as otherwise provided by law. Claims files records may be released to other governmental agencies upon written request and demonstration of need; such records held by the receiving agency remain confidential and exempt as provided for in this paragraph.” (e.s.)
Section 768.28(2), Florida Statutes, defines “state agencies or subdivisions” to include, among others, “counties.”
Application of the exemption afforded by section 768.28(15), Florida Statutes, is limited to tort claims for which the agency may be liable under 768.28, Florida Statutes. Your inquiry, however, involves federal civil rights laws actions and liability under 42 United States Code section 1983.
You also refer to a staff analysis of the 1994 amendment to the exemption statute, which states that the types of documents in a claims file include “invoices from . . . defense firms[.]” To the extent that the staff analysis is indicative of legislative intent, there is nothing indicating that the term should be given such a broad construction. Exemptions to the Public Records Law are to be narrowly construed. Moreover, in discussing what is contained in the claims file, the staff analysis refers to materials that are relevant to an assessment or an evaluation of the claim. While the staff analysis refers to “invoices,” that term should be construed in light of the other types of information referenced. While an invoice may contain information relevant to the claims assessment such as a discussion of the nature of the work performed, an invoice indicating only the hours worked and amount to be paid by the public agency would not appear to constitute the type of information intended for exemption.
Therefore, I am of the opinion that records of outside attorney fee bills for the defense of the county, as well as its employees who are sued individually, for alleged civil rights violations are public records subject to disclosure, even though those records may be maintained by the County Risk Management Office pursuant to the county’s risk management program.
Robert A. Butterworth Attorney General
“any state, county, district, authority, or municipal officer, department, division, board, bureau, commission, or other separate unit of government created or established by law . . . and any other public or private agency, person, partnership, corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of any public agency.”
(Fla. 2d DCA 1994) (agency which improperly “blocked out” most notations on invoices prepared in connection with services rendered by and fees paid to attorneys representing agency improperly withheld nonexempt material by failing to limit redactions to those items “genuinely reflecting its `mental impression, conclusion, litigation strategy, or legal theory'”).
“The types of documents in a claims file include accident reports by police, sheriff, and highway patrol officers; investigative reports; legal pleadings; reports and correspondence from defense counsel evaluating potential liability, potential damages, and providing recommendations regarding settlement; correspondence relating to the accident or incident; doctors’ reports and reports from other medical experts or health providers including medical test results, patient medical histories, medications and treatments; damage estimates in the case of automobile accidents or water vessel accidents; reports by experts who are requested to be potential expert witnesses regarding liability and damages; correspondence from and to insurance adjusters relating to, for example, offers of compromise; notations relating to the facts in the case; invoices from experts and defense firms; names of investigators; amount of money available for litigation and settlement; “SeFes” scores (an evaluation score used in determining whether or not a suit should be defended or settled); personnel records; recorded or signed statements taken as possible evidence; risk management program evaluations of hazardous conditions; supervisor and claims committee notes pertaining to defense strategies; minutes of peer review meetings; Department of Professional Regulation defense files, and Trust Fund Council meeting minutes (public hospitals are “agencies” affected by the claims file law); anonymous correspondence; surveillance reports, photographs, and recordings; expert witness reports; and case evaluation statements from for example school principals, teachers, and bus drivers (school districts are also “agencies” affected by the claims file law).”