published Friday, February 21st, 2014

Tennessee Court of Appeals orders Chattanooga to pay $70,000 in attorney's fees in 2011 case

Court Opinion on Little Case
Court Opinion on Little Case

Judges for the Tennessee Court of Appeals have ordered Chattanooga to pay $70,000 in attorney's fees and expenses over a 2011 open records lawsuit.

Rebecca Little, a local businesswoman affiliated with Tennessee Riverplace, an events facilities company, brought her open records requests to Hamilton County Chancery Court in July 2011, nearly a month after she'd asked for city documents.

Little first requested materials related to city annexation of the Tiftonia area in 1972 on June 7, 2011. Those requests were responded to and filled. But a June 30, 2011 request went unfilled over the course of weeks, prompting the lawsuit.

She lived in the area, according to court documents.

City officials brought some of the desired records to a 2011 hearing before Chancellor W. Frank Brown III.

Among records involved in the case were emails between city staff that showed the thinking of at least one city official on Little's request.

In an email from Public Works Administrator Steve Leach to Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett, Leach wrote:

"Seriously Phil, I assume (Little's) motive is harassment of the staff in order to prove that she should be let out of the city. At some point in my humble opinion this is pure and simple harassment of the staff and again in my opinion goes beyond the purpose and intent of the legislation."

Little received copies of the material at the hearing, much of it maps and sewer-related documents for the area.

Then Little asked that the city pay her attorney's fees.

Brown denied the request, saying the city had not acted in bad faith.

Little appealed.

The state appellate court sided with Little and ordered the fees paid.

Brown called costs of $70,000 listed by Little's attorney John R. Anderson "unreasonable and excessive."

The chancellor set the amount at $50,000.

Little appealed again. Again the appellate court sided with Little and has ordered the full amount paid.

"In the prior appeal of this action, this Court determined that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award the plaintiff fees and costs she incurred in seeking the disclosure of public documents from the City of Chattanooga ... . Upon remand, the plaintiff filed a petition seeking attorney's fees and costs exceeding $70,000.00. The trial court found that the total fees and costs sought by the plaintiff were unreasonable and excessive, and the court reduced the amount of fees awarded to $50,284.50 ... . We reverse the trial court's judgment and remand for entry of an award of the full amount of fees and costs sought," the opinion reads.

City spokeswoman Lacie Stone said that City Attorney Wade Hinton is "evaluating our options" and will consult with Mayor Andy Berke and the city council.

The city could apply to be heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but the the court declined to hear city's appeal of an earlier decision by Brown.

Anderson declined to comment.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter at @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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