Court finds in favor of Lowthert complaint against Freedom of Information Act Commission

Connecticut Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schuman has found in favor of Marissa Lowthert in her civil complaint against the state Freedom of Information Act Commission. The ruling was handed down Friday, Jan. 15, 2016.

In April of last year Lowthert, a Wilton resident, sued the commission for its ruling regarding a complaint she lodged against the Wilton Board of Education. The commission had dismissed her complaint. This ruling does not negate the commission’s decision, but does send the matter back for further proceedings.

In her complaint, Lowthert asserted the education board failed to adequately describe the reasons for convening an executive session at a special meeting on Feb. 27, 2014, and regular meetings on April 10 and June 26, 2014. The published agendas indicated the executive sessions would take up “discussion of confidential attorney-client privileged material” in two instances and a confidential memorandum prepared by attorneys in the third .

She also claimed the board did not identify in the minutes of the meeting who attended each executive session.

At the end of the commission hearing, which took place Jan. 22, 2015, Lowthert asked the hearing officer to examine the attorney-client memorandum in private, which he declined to do. The commission instead found the memorandum contained legal advice from the board’s counsel and that disclosing the subject matter would reveal the substance of the communication. Thus it ruled the information on the agenda was adequate.

Judge Schuman disagreed. Citing previous cases he wrote “… an agency should provide an agenda and notice that, absent some overriding concern, has at least some significance to the public and that provides at least some level of meaningful disclosure about the subject matter of a public agency meeting.”

The Wilton board’s agenda information did not meet that standard, he wrote. No evidence provided to the Freedom of Information Act Commission, he continued, proved “why the board of education could not have described the business to be transacted as something such as “discussion of confidential attorney-client memorandum re legal claim of John Smith” or “attorney-client memorandum re settlement with Mary Jones.”

Further, he wrote, “It seems self-evident that some harm occurs whenever the public is denied information to which it has a right” and found “substantial prejudice” toward Lowthert.

In remanding the case back to the commission, the judge directed it to “examine the memoranda in question in camera and, unless inappropriate in view of this opinion, order the board of education to disclose the general subject matter ofthe memoranda.”