APPEALS COURT RIPS COUNTY IN PUBLIC RECORDS CASE
In a case that started with a woman seeking public records about an investigation of her dog by animal-control officials, an appeals court Friday blasted Orange County in a dispute about payment of attorneys' fees. The 5th District Court of Appeal had already ruled once in favor of Susan Hewlings, who successfully filed a public-records lawsuit against Orange County and then sought to have the county pay legal fees. In Friday's ruling, a three-judge panel of the court described another appeal by the county on fee issues as "frivolous" and lashed out at the county's arguments. The underlying case dealt with Hewlings' requests for copies of records related to the animal-control investigation. The county said Hewlings could inspect the records and designate documents to be copied. But Hewlings wanted copies of all the records and filed the lawsuit after Orange County officials did not comply with her request. The 5th District Court of Appeal in 2012 said Hewlings was entitled to attorneys' fees and again sided with her Friday in a dispute that, at least in part, involved appellate fees. "(Hewlings) made a simple request for the records related to the investigation of her dog,'' said Friday's nine-page ruling, written by Chief Judge Vincent Torpy and joined by judges Thomas Sawaya and Jay Cohen. "She asked for copies of the records and expressed a willingness to pay the costs. Instead of complying with this simple request, Appellant (the county) chose to interpose the additional bureaucratic hurdles of forcing her to come to its offices, comb through the records, mark the records in a certain manner, wait for a written estimate of costs, then, after paying the costs, wait again for the records to be mailed to her. This was a violation of the law. Because of Appellant's actions in this case, which are also in direct contravention of the public policy favoring a simple and prompt resolution of public records requests, this litigation has now spanned four years and involved discovery depositions, other discovery, numerous motions hearings, trials, mediations, and two appeals. To say that Appellant has turned a molehill into a mountain is an understatement. This case provides a textbook example of why the Legislature authorized an award of fees against obstinate public entities such as Appellant."