17 N.E.3d 922 (Ind. 2014), 82S04-1401-PL-49, Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh County Health Dep't

Docket Nº82S04-1401-PL-49
Citation17 N.E.3d 922
Opinion JudgeMassa, Justice.
Party NameEVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS AND RITA WARD, Appellants (Plaintiffs below), v. VANDERBURGH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, Appellee (Defendant below)
AttorneyATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Patrick A. Shoulders, Jean M. Blanton, Evansville, Indiana. ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE INDIANA COALITION FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT: Kurt A. Webber, Carmel, Indiana. ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE HOOSIER STATE PRESS ASSOCIATION FOUNDATION: Steven M. Badger, Leah N. Wilson, India...
Judge PanelMassa, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur. Rush, C.J., and Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur.
Case DateOctober 07, 2014
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

Page 922

17 N.E.3d 922 (Ind. 2014)

EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS AND RITA WARD, Appellants (Plaintiffs below),

v.

VANDERBURGH COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, Appellee (Defendant below)

No. 82S04-1401-PL-49

Supreme Court of Indiana

October 7, 2014

Appeal from the Vanderburgh Circuit Court, No. 82C01-1208-PL-409. The Honorable Carl A. Heldt, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 82A04-1302-PL-57.

Page 923

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Patrick A. Shoulders, Jean M. Blanton, Evansville, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE INDIANA COALITION FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT: Kurt A. Webber, Carmel, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE HOOSIER STATE PRESS ASSOCIATION FOUNDATION: Steven M. Badger, Leah N. Wilson, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE STATE OF INDIANA: Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General of Indiana, Stephen R. Creason, Anne Mullin O'Connor, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Joseph H. Harrison, Jr., E. Lee Veazey, Evansville, Indiana.

Massa, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 924

Massa, Justice.

This case presents the issue of whether the certificates of death that doctors, coroners, and funeral directors file with county health departments pursuant to Indiana Code chapter 16-37-3 are public records that a county health department must provide public access to under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act. We believe they are, and therefore we reverse the trial court.

Facts and Procedural History

A. The Creation of Indiana's Death Record System

In 1881, preventable diseases caused 25% of deaths in Indiana. 19 Brevier Legis. Rep. 200 (1881). In addition to the obvious human cost, those deaths created an adverse economic impact on the state estimated at over $15 million dollars each year. Id. In an effort to ameliorate this condition, Senator Flavius J. Van Vorhis of Marion, Indiana proposed legislation to create a State Board of Health.1 Id. at 83. Senator Van Vorhis drafted his bill " upon the experience of twenty-two States having

Page 925

similar laws," id. at 84, and charged the Board to " endeavor to make intelligent and profitable use of the collected records of deaths and of sickness among the people" and recommend legislation to promote Hoosiers' health and well-being. 1881 Ind. Acts ch. 19, § 2. To that end, the new law empowered the Board to create and supervise a " system of registration of births, deaths and marriages." Id. at § 7.

It also established county boards of health designed to work in partnership with the State Board: " The Board of Health of each county shall act in conjunction with the State Board of Health, and it shall be the duty of the Secretary of such County Boards . . . to report such facts and statistics as may be required under instructions from, and according to, forms and blanks furnished by said Board." Id. at § 9. When a death occurred, the attending physician or caregiver was required to report the fact and cause of death to the board of the applicable locality. Id. at § 10. A physician making such a report was required to submit " a certificate of the cause of death, and such correlative facts as may be required in the blank forms furnished." Id. And these death certificates were public records:

It shall be the duty of the Board of Health of each county to keep a complete record, according to the form prescribed by the State Board, of all marriages, births and deaths reported to them under the provisions of this act, and such record shall be open to the inspection of any citizen without fee.

Id. at § 12. Over the decades, the General Assembly amended this statutory scheme many times, but the county boards of health remained responsible for collecting, retaining, and producing individual death certificates, while the State Board compiled and analyzed the records and recommended appropriate public policy.

B. Indiana's Contemporary Death Record System

Indiana's death record system begins with the death certificate, which contains data used to generate a variety of other records. A certificate of death is created pursuant to Indiana Code section 16-37-3-3(a) (Supp. 2013),2 which provides:

The physician last in attendance upon the deceased or the person in charge of interment shall file a certificate of death or of stillbirth with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death or stillbirth occurred. The local health officer shall retain a copy of the certificate of death.

It must include the decedent's cause of death as certified by the attending physician or local health officer. Ind. Code § § 16-37-3-5 (2008 & Supp. 2013), -6(b) (2008). Since January 1, 2011, the person filing the death certificate must use a state-created electronic database, the Indiana Death Registration System, " to file a certificate of death with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death occurred." Ind. Code § 16-37-3-3(b); see also Ind. Code § 16-37-1-3.1 (Supp. 2013) (establishing the Indiana Death Registration System).

Once the death certificate is filed, the local health officer must use the information thereon to " make a permanent record" that does not include the cause of death. Ind. Code § 16-37-3-9(a) (2008). The permanent record, with the exception of the decedent's Social Security number,

Page 926

" shall be open to public inspection." Ind. Code § 16-37-3-9(b). The local health officer must also report the death to the Indiana State Health Department within five days. Ind. Code § 16-37-1-3.1(e) (Supp. 2013).

Finally, upon request of a qualifying individual, the " local health officer shall provide a certification of birth, death, or stillbirth registration." Ind. Code § 16-37-1-8(a) (2008). The requesting party must demonstrate he has " a direct interest in the matter" and " the certificate is necessary for the determination of personal or property rights or for compliance with state or federal law." Id. Depending on the requesting party's preference, the local health officer has the discretion to include or omit " information concerning the cause of death." Ind. Code § 16-37-1-8(d) (2008).

C. Rita Ward's Public Records Request

In June 2012, Rita Ward sent a letter to the Vanderburgh County Health Department requesting " copies of records created under IC [§ ] 16-37-3-3 maintained by the Vanderburgh County Health Department for the month of May, 2012." App. at 20. The Department denied her request, stating: " pursuant to I.C. [§ ] 16-37-1-10, in order to obtain a copy of a certificate of death, the purchaser must have a direct interest in the matter or the information must be necessary for the determination of a personal or property right or for the compliance with state or federal law." App. at 21. Indiana Code section 16-37-1-10(a) (2008) provides, in pertinent part:

The records and files of the division of the state department concerning vital statistics are subject to this article and rules of the state department. Data contained in the records and files may be disclosed only as follows:

(1) The state registrar shall permit inspection of the records or issue a certified copy of a certificate or part of a certificate only if the state registrar is satisfied of the following: (A) That the applicant has a direct interest in the matter recorded. (B) That the information is necessary for the determination of personal or property rights or for compliance with state or federal law. . . . (2) The state department may permit the use of data contained in vital statistical records for research purposes only, but no identifying use may be made of the data. (3) In any extraordinary case that the state registrar determines is a direct tangible and legitimate public interest.

The Department's letter further stated Ward was free to come inspect any " permanent record" created pursuant to Indiana Code section 16-37-3-9(a). App. at 22. But permanent records do not contain cause of death information. See Ind. Code § 16-37-3-9(a) (specifying the content of a permanent record).

Ward sought an advisory opinion from the Public Access Counselor of the State of Indiana. The Counselor issued an opinion concluding the Department's denial of Ward's request was permissible, but one week later, he issued an amended opinion stating the opposite:

It should be noted that I.C. § 16-37-1-10 would only apply to records maintained by the State Department of Health. Thus, the Department could not deny your request pursuant to this section of the statute, as it is not a state department . . . . From what the law currently provides, while the State Department of Health could deny a similar request under I.C. § 16-37-1-10, the information

Page 927

as maintained by the local health department has not been afforded the same protections.

App. at 26-27.

The following day, the Evansville Courier & Press newspaper requested access to all Vanderburgh County death records dating from May 2012 that were " created under IC [§ ] 16-37-3-3." App. at 28. The Department denied that request, stating it did " not have any documents to copy which would be responsive" because the Indiana Death Registration System " eliminated all paper copies and . . . is maintained solely by the Indiana State Department of Health." App. at 29. Thus, the Department claimed: " Under Indiana law, the County Health Department has no paper documents which it retains concerning I.C. [§ ] 16-37-3-3." App. at 29. The Department noted the Courier & Press was not qualified to request records pursuant to Indiana Code section 16-37-3-8, and suggested the Courier & Press direct its request to the State Department of Health. Of course, as the Courier & Press likely could not satisfy the requirements of Indiana Code § 16-37-1-10(a), any request it made to the State Department likely would have been fruitless.

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14 practice notes
  • In re Supervised Estate of Kent, 082517 INCA, 55A01-1612-ES-2907
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 25, 2017
    ...which are particularly appropriate for summary resolution. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cnty. Health Dep't, 17 N.E.3d 922, 927-28 (Ind. 2014) (citations omitted). City of Lawrence Util. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. 2017). [¶6] I......
  • 82 N.E.3d 326 (Ind.App. 2017), 55A01-1612-ES-2907, In re Estate of Kent
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 25, 2017
    ...which are particularly appropriate for summary resolution. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cnty. Health Dep't, 17 N.E.3d 922, 927-28 (Ind. 2014) (citations omitted). City of Lawrence Utils. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. [¶ 6] Initia......
  • Estate of Williams v. BorgWarner Morse TEC Inc.,, 082818 INCA, 49A02-1710-PL-2224
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 28, 2018
    ...of law assist our review, they are not binding upon us. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cty. Health Dept., 17 N.E.3d 922, 927 (Ind. 2014). [¶14] The Estate argues that what is required by the ELA statute is some action or inaction to be taken which contribu......
  • 110 N.E.3d 1148 (Ind.App. 2018), 49A02-1710-PL-2224, Estate of Williams v. BorgWarner Morse TEC Inc.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 28, 2018
    ...of law assist our review, they are not binding upon us. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cty. Health Dept., 17 N.E.3d 922, 927 (Ind. [¶ 14] The Estate argues that what is required by the ELA statute is some action or inaction to be taken which contribut......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
13 cases
  • In re Supervised Estate of Kent, 082517 INCA, 55A01-1612-ES-2907
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 25, 2017
    ...which are particularly appropriate for summary resolution. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cnty. Health Dep't, 17 N.E.3d 922, 927-28 (Ind. 2014) (citations omitted). City of Lawrence Util. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. 2017). [¶6] I......
  • 82 N.E.3d 326 (Ind.App. 2017), 55A01-1612-ES-2907, In re Estate of Kent
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 25, 2017
    ...which are particularly appropriate for summary resolution. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cnty. Health Dep't, 17 N.E.3d 922, 927-28 (Ind. 2014) (citations omitted). City of Lawrence Utils. Serv. Bd. v. Curry, 68 N.E.3d 581, 585 (Ind. [¶ 6] Initia......
  • Estate of Williams v. BorgWarner Morse TEC Inc.,, 082818 INCA, 49A02-1710-PL-2224
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 28, 2018
    ...of law assist our review, they are not binding upon us. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cty. Health Dept., 17 N.E.3d 922, 927 (Ind. 2014). [¶14] The Estate argues that what is required by the ELA statute is some action or inaction to be taken which contribu......
  • 110 N.E.3d 1148 (Ind.App. 2018), 49A02-1710-PL-2224, Estate of Williams v. BorgWarner Morse TEC Inc.
    • United States
    • Indiana Court of Appeals of Indiana
    • August 28, 2018
    ...of law assist our review, they are not binding upon us. Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cty. Health Dept., 17 N.E.3d 922, 927 (Ind. [¶ 14] The Estate argues that what is required by the ELA statute is some action or inaction to be taken which contribut......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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