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Green v. Unified Government of Wyandottte County

Court of Appeals of Kansas

May 26, 2017

Trina Green, Appellant,
v.
Unified Government of Wyandottte County/Kansas City, Kansas, et al., Appellees.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. The Kansas Open Records Act provides in K.S.A. 45-216(a) that it is the policy of this state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless specifically provided otherwise by statute.

         2. Consistent with the policy that public records generally be open for inspection, the Kansas Open Records Act provides in K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 45-222(c) that a public agency denying disclosure of a record has the burden of proof in court to show that its action was proper.

         3. When a defendant files a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's claim because it fails to state any viable claim for legal relief, the district court must accept the facts included in the plaintiff's petition. The court cannot resolve factual disputes on this motion, so it must resolve any doubt about the facts in the plaintiff's favor.

         4. When a plaintiff's petition presents allegations that, if true, would give the district court discretion to order disclosure of public records, that petition cannot be dismissed on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         Appeal from Wyandotte District Court; Daniel A. Duncan, judge. Opinion filed May 26, 2017. Reversed and remanded.

          Derrick A. Pearce, of Peterson & Associates, P.C., of Kansas City, Missouri, for appellant.

          Jane A. Wilson, assistant counsel, Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, for appellees.

          Before Leben, P.J., Powell and Schroeder, JJ.

          Leben, J.

         The Kansas Open Records Act begins with a simple proposition: "It is declared to be the public policy of this state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act." K.S.A. 45-216(a). The Act also provides that it "shall be liberally construed and applied to promote" this policy of openness. K.S.A. 45-216(a). And in any court action seeking to enforce disclosure of records, a public agency refusing to produce records has the burden of proof to show that it wasn't required to disclose the records. K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 45-222(c).

         With these concepts in mind, we consider what happened when Trina Green asked to see records about the shooting of her son by law-enforcement officers from the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Department. Specifically, she asked to see the records about the shooting from the sheriff's department and the Kansas City (Kansas) Police Department. Those departments refused her request, citing an exception to disclosure for criminal-investigation records that's found in a statute, K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 45-221(a)(10).

         That exception isn't iron-clad, though. It provides that the district court "may order disclosure of such records, subject to such conditions as the court may impose, if the court finds that the disclosure" is in the public interest; wouldn't interfere with a law-enforcement investigation; wouldn't reveal confidential sources, techniques, or agents; wouldn't endanger anyone's safety; and wouldn't reveal any specific identifying information of the victim of a sexual offense (like the name or phone number of the victim). K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 45-221(a)(10)(A)-(F). By providing that the district court "may order disclosure, " the statute tells us that the district court has discretion when making this judgment call. Given the public policy for disclosure, though, one would think that if the court finds disclosure would be "in the public interest" and none of the harms listed in K.S.A. 2016 Supp. 45-221(a)(10)(A)-(F) would arise on disclosure, then the records should be disclosed.

         Given this background, what happened in the district court when Green sued to get the court to order production of records ...


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