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Lawsuit Over Mizzou's $82,222 Public Records Fees Can Go to Trial, Judge Says

Sarah Fenske Sep 11, 2018 6:41 AM
When members of the Beagle Freedom Project put in Sunshine law requests for records related to the care of lab animals at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the California-based non-profit wasn't asking for anything too onerous: The university is required to maintain the records for federal inspectors. Yet somehow Mizzou determined that producing them would require staffers to be paid as much as $125/hour — and ultimately socked members with bills totaling $82,222 just to get a look.

Unlike far too many individuals and, yes, journalists confronted with such stonewalling, the Beagle Freedom Project didn't just go away. Its St. Louis-based attorney, Dan Kolde, filed a lawsuit, arguing that its insanely high bill wasn't just an attempt to thwart the public from seeing the records — but that it actually violates state law.

Last year, Kolde offered to settle the lawsuit for just $1, along with an adoption plan for cats and dogs in the university's care once they're ready to retire from work as lab animals. Mizzou didn't respond.


Maybe it should have. Last week, a Boone County judge rejected the university's request for summary judgment in the case, clearing the way for the animal advocates to take the case to trial.

"The university asked the court to dismiss our case, but the court completely rejected their argument," a triumphant Kolde said yesterday. "We're looking forward to a trial."

In court filings, Mizzou has argued that it acted in good faith. (The university has previously declined comment on the matter, citing pending litigation.)

Yet the Beagle Freedom Project's lawyers have been able to detail the way Mizzou administrators reacted with skepticism and even hostility to the requests. In internal emails obtained by the attorneys, university staffers referred to the non-profit as "the instigators" of the public records requests and shared links deriding its work.

In one instance, a staffer wrote, "It’s likely the expense will prohibit most requestors from pursuing anything further.” The same staffer estimated it would take her 179 hours to access certain records, even though they were all available electronically from her own office.

And while the state's Sunshine Law requires that the "lowest-cost employee" be used to fill requests, the Beagle Freedom Project's court filings argue that not only did Mizzou ignore that edict — but that it inflated the salaries of the personnel tasked with assisting. In one case, the attorneys say, it included a 52 percent surcharge beyond the person's salary to reflect "indirect costs."

That's even though some Mizzou staffers acknowledged in internal emails that fulfilling the requests would be no trouble at all. As the Beagle Freedom Project's lawyers explain in their response to the university's request for summary judgment, one investigator replied to a query from the university staffer charged with compiling the records that “[the] only cost associated with the request is the time for me to respond to this email.”

The investigator was told to reconsider, but stuck to his guns. Nevertheless, the university included three hours of his time in its estimate — and, at $77/hour, that meant another $462 for Beagle Freedom Project's total.

Even with all that, records show the university sought to paint itself as altruistic. In one email, a staffer said that the volunteers who put in the records requests were "people that have a good heart but are duped by the [Beagle Freedom Project]."

Were they good people duped by the nonprofit — or good people thwarted by a university that sought to derail their Sunshine law requests? That question now appears headed for trial.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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