University of Missouri System lawsuit over open records will move forward

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In a battle over the Sunshine Law, a lawsuit facing the University of Missouri System will move forward, a judge ruled Friday.

In May 2016, Animal Rescue, Media & Education, also known as the Beagle Freedom Project, sued the UM System and its records custodian, Paula Barrett. The suit claimed they violated state open records laws by inflating the costs to produce public records the group had requested.

The defendants made a motion for summary judgment, which would have kept the case from going to trial, but Judge Jeff Harris denied that motion Friday. The court found six issues that need to be resolved in the case:

Whether the UM System is keeping the costs to produce records as low as possible.What kind of employees the UM System uses to produce records.The scope of Animal Rescue, Media & Education’s records request.How the UM System calculated the time it would take to respond to records.The UM System’s record-keeping practices and its impact on the cost of responding to the requests.The $82,222.33 price tag the UM System put on Animal Rescue, Media & Education’s records request.

The defendants argued to stop the lawsuit, saying Animal Rescue, Media & Education couldn’t sue on behalf of others because it doesn’t have official members. The defendants also said they complied with the Sunshine Law by preparing the cost estimate, according to court documents filed by the defendants.

In court filings, Animal Rescue, Media & Education argued the case should go to trial for four reasons:

The UM System did not respond to allegations it charged too much to review documents.The UM System did not say why it used multiple employees to gather the records.The UM System did not say why it used higher-earning principal investigators to gather records.The UM System did not say why it increased the wages of the employees gathering records, which increased the overall cost estimate.

The lawsuit was filed after Animal Rescue, Media & Education began its “Identity Campaign.” The group encouraged supporters to virtually “adopt” dogs and cats used for research by submitting open records requests to get information about the animals.

Barrett’s counsel said she originally estimated an average request for a single animal would cost about $53.04, so Animal Rescue, Media & Education told its supporters to expect to pay about $50 for the records, according to court documents filed by the plaintiff.

When supporters submitted their requests, Barrett estimated the cost to respond to each request would be several hundred dollars. The court documents filed by each side showed a range in the estimated cost.

The documents filed by the UM System said a sample set of records for one animal was 559 pages, without including any research conducted by the principal investigator.

Animal Rescue, Media & Education then submitted a request for records of all 179 dogs and cats being used for research at the UM System in December 2015. Barrett anticipated the cost to be $82,222.33 to gather all the records, according to court documents filed by both sides.

The trial date has not yet been set.

Supervising editor is Brendan Crowley: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-7884.

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