City of East Lansing Hides Public Lawsuit Information

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Monday, November 19, 2018, 12:31 pm
Alice Dreger

City Attorney Tom Yeadon (left) and Adam Marshall, Knight Foundation Litigation Attorney, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

In another instance of refusing to reveal what is supposed to be public information, the City of East Lansing will not release any part of a recently-produced memo to City Council that indicates in what lawsuits the City is currently engaged. An attorney for the national press rights’ organization, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, tells ELi that the people of East Lansing have a right to this information.

In its latest move, the City is effectively claiming that any information about lawsuits in which the City is plaintiff or defendant – even the names of the lawsuits – is covered by “attorney-client privilege.”

The claim comes in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by East Lansing Info (ELi) on November 8. ELi ordered a copy of a document provided by City Attorney Tom Yeadon to Council the day before, a document identified in Council’s agenda as Yeadon’s “quarterly litigation status report.”

ELi anticipated that City Attorney Tom Yeadon would elect to redact parts of the report. We expected he would claim attorney-client privilege for his legal advice to Council, as that is what attorney-client privilege can legally cover.

Instead, the FOIA response from the City came back claiming that the entire document – including everything from the salutation style to such basic information as the names of active lawsuits – “is subject to attorney-client privilege.” We are not permitted to see any of it.

Asked to comment on the FOIA denial letter, Adam Marshall, Knight Foundation Litigation Attorney for D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says, “Generally, the attorney-client privilege is a narrow one: it only protects confidential communications between a client and their attorney made for the purpose of obtaining or giving legal advice.”

Marshall adds, “The public has a right to know what governmental bodies and officials are doing, including, to the maximum extent permitted by law, their involvement in any litigation. Lawsuits are frequently a costly and time-consuming affair, and the public should be informed as to how their tax dollars are being spent.”

As examples of costs of lawsuits to East Lansing taxpayers, ELi has found that the City spent over $200,000 fighting workers who claimed harm from allegedly dangerous practices at the City’s wastewater treatment plant. (The workers lost the case.) The City has also spent over $60,000 in the ongoing suit brought by Country Mills, a vendor at the farmers’ market, over alleged discrimination.

In a previous instance of FOIA denial, when the City refused to release information related to the lawsuit over the retaining wall built at taxpayer expense along the City Attorney’s private property, Marshall explained for ELi’s readers, “The whole notion of attorney-client privilege in the context of a government body is a little odd because the ultimate client is the people.”

As is standard practice, the City Clerk advised ELi in the recent denial letter that we can appeal the denial to City Manager George Lahanas. A 2014 ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals suggests, however, that appeals of FOIA denials from the City of East Lansing should be directed to City Council.

As a consequence, ELi will direct its appeal to the City Council.

If the City Council denies ELi’s appeal, our remaining option will be to bring suit. That would be a lawsuit about which we expect we’ll be able to report more than the average.

Update: You can see our appeal letter here.


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