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August 2, 2000

Ms. Joanne Wright
Associate General Counsel
Texas Department of Transportation
125 E. 11th Street
Austin, Texas 78701-2483

OR2000-2923

Dear Ms. Wright:

You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under the Public Information Act, chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 137986.

The Texas Department of Transportation (the "department") received a request for information relating to a specified case file involving a motor vehicle junkyard. You claim that the requested information, which you have submitted for our review, is excepted from disclosure under section 552.103 of the Government Code. We have considered the exception you claim and have reviewed the information you submitted.

Section 552.103 of the Government Code, the "litigation exception," provides in relevant part:

(a) Information is excepted from [required public disclosure] if it is information relating to litigation of a civil or criminal nature to which the state or a political subdivision is or may be a party or to which an officer or employee of the state or a political subdivision, as a consequence of the person's office or employment, is or may be a party.

. . .

(c) Information relating to litigation involving a governmental body or an officer or employee of a governmental body is excepted from disclosure under Subsection (a) only if the litigation is pending or reasonably anticipated on the date that the requestor applies to the officer for public information for access to or duplication of the information.

Gov't Code 552.103(a), (c). A governmental body that raises a claim under section 552.103 has the burden of providing relevant facts and documentation sufficient to establish the applicability of section 552.103 to the information that it seeks to withhold. To sustain its burden, the governmental body must demonstrate: (1) that litigation is pending or reasonably anticipated on the date that the governmental body receives the request for information and (2) that the information in question is related to that litigation. See University of Tex. Law Sch. v. Texas Legal Found., 958 S.W.2d 479 (Tex. App.--Austin 1997, no pet.); Heard v. Houston Post Co., 684 S.W.2d 210 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1984, writ ref'd n.r.e.); see also Open Records Decision No. 551 at 4 (1990). Both elements of the test must be met in order for information to be excepted from disclosure under section 552.103. Id.

The question of whether litigation reasonably is anticipated must be determined on a case-by-case basis. See Open Records Decision No. 452 at 4 (1986). To establish that litigation reasonably is anticipated, a governmental body must provide this office with "concrete evidence showing that the claim that litigation may ensue is more than mere conjecture." Id. In this instance, you inform this office that the department, prior to its receipt of the request for the information in question, had notified the business establishment to which the information pertains of the department's intent to remedy an apparent violation of chapter 391 of the Transportation Code. You further inform us that the department has made a formal request for representation in the case by the Transportation Division of this office. Based on your representations and our review of the information in question, we find that it relates to litigation that reasonably was anticipated on the date that the department received the request for information. Accordingly, we conclude that the requested information is excepted from public disclosure under section 552.103.

In concluding that the department may withhold under section 552.103 information relating to the anticipated litigation, we assume that the opposing party to the anticipated litigation has not seen or had access to any of the information that you seek to withhold. The purpose of section 552.103 is to enable a governmental body to protect its position in litigation by forcing parties seeking information relating to that litigation to obtain it through discovery procedures. See Open Records Decision No. 551 at 4-5 (1990). If the opposing party to anticipated or pending litigation previously has seen or had access to requested information relating to the litigation, then there is no interest in withholding that information from public disclosure under section 552.103. See Open Records Decision Nos. 349 (1982), 320 (1982). Therefore, you may not withhold the submitted correspondence between the department and the prospective opposing party to the anticipated litigation or any other responsive information that the prospective opposing party has seen or to which it already has had access. Furthermore, the applicability of section 552.103 ends once the related litigation concludes. See Attorney General Opinion MW-575 (1982); Open Records Decision No. 350 (1982). The department must not release any confidential information, however, even at the conclusion of the anticipated litigation. See Gov't Code 552.007, 552.101, 552.352.

This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and limited to the facts as presented to us; therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.

This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. 552.321(a).

If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. 552.3215(e).

If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408, 411 (Tex. App.--Austin 1992, no writ).

If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.

Sincerely,


James W. Morris, III
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division

JWM/ljp

Ref: ID# 137986

Encl. Submitted documents

cc: Mr. Gerry Shehan
Keep Sherman Beautiful
P.O. Box 1106
Sherman, Texas 75091-1106
(w/o enclosures)


 

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