Burton v. York County Sheriff's Dept.

Decision Date05 April 2004
Docket NumberNo. 3771.,3771.
Citation358 S.C. 339,594 S.E.2d 888
CourtSouth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesRay B. BURTON, III and East Coast Newspapers, Inc., Respondents/Appellants, v. YORK COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT and Bruce Bryant, York County Sheriff, Appellants/Respondents.

Melvin B. McKeown, Jr. and Elizabeth H. Robinson, both of York, for Appellants/Respondents.

Jay Bender, of Columbia, for Respondents/Appellants.

Robert E. Lyon, Jr. and M. Clifton Scott, both of Columbia, for Amicus Curiae South Carolina Association of Counties.

Sandra J. Senn and Stephanie P. McDonald, both of Charleston, for Amici Curiae South Carolina Sheriffs' Association and South Carolina Fraternal Order of Police.

ANDERSON, J.:

In this case, we decide whether the Freedom of Information Act, S.C.Code Ann. §§ 30-4-10 to -165 (1991 & Supp.2003) ("FOIA"), requires the Sheriff of York County ("the Sheriff") and the York County Sheriff's Department (collectively, "the Sheriff's Department") to provide information regarding alleged illegal and unethical conduct of four deputy sheriffs to Ray B. Burton, III and East Coast Newspapers, Inc. (collectively, "Burton").

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Sometime in early 2000, four York County deputy sheriffs were suspended without pay for "conduct unbecoming an officer." The suspension followed an internal investigation of a complaint lodged against the deputies by Lori Williams, a citizen of York County. After filing her complaint, Williams contacted Burton, a reporter for The Herald newspaper, which is published in Rock Hill. Williams informed Burton that her complaint to the Sheriffs Department included falsification of investigative reports, possession of stolen property, abuse of authority, and sexual activity in patrol cars.

In an effort to obtain more information for a newspaper report, Burton submitted written requests to the Sheriffs Department for access to records it possessed relating to Williams' complaint and the Sheriff's Department's response to the complaint. Burton identified two specific categories of information he wanted:

(1) Crime Reports. Burton requested access to reports of all complaints or allegations of illegal conduct made against the named deputy sheriffs since January 1, 2000, including all complaints made by Williams during that time.
(2) Employment Records. Burton asked to review the employment information for the named deputy sheriffs, including "dates of employment, title, rank, pay-rate schedule, copies of disciplinary letters, records of suspension and all other information as provided by law."

The Sheriff's Department's response only provided information as to the date of hire, title/rank, and pay/rate schedule for each of the named deputies. It claimed all other information requested was exempt from disclosure under FOIA because the information was of a personal nature and disclosing it would constitute an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy. The personal privacy exemption is provided under S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(2) (1991). Alternatively, the Sheriff's Department claimed the information requested was exempt under S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(3) (Supp.2003) (records of law enforcement activities compiled in the process of detecting and investigating a crime the disclosure of which would harm an ongoing or prospective law enforcement action) and § 30-4-40(a)(7) (1991) ("[c]orrespondence or work products of legal counsel for a public body and any other material that would violate attorney-client relationships"). Burton initiated this action seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

After conducting an in camera review of the Sheriff's Department's records that the Department claimed were exempt from disclosure, the trial court concluded the Department had violated the FOIA. The judge "permanently enjoined and restrained" the Sheriff's Department "from asserting exemptions from mandatory disclosure that have no legal or factual justification, and from continuing to refuse to segregate exempt and non-exempt material and make non-exempt public records available for inspection and copying."

The trial court found that a portion of the records submitted for in camera review revealed information that would lead to an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy if disclosed. In its findings of fact, the court concluded "the Williams' allegations relating to the off-duty sexual practices and activities of the deputies is personal and private, as are the photographs in the record of Williams and Deputy Sullivan." Burton has not appealed or otherwise contested this finding.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Burton sought injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment pursuant to FOIA.

Declaratory judgments in and of themselves are neither legal nor equitable. See Felts v. Richland County, 303 S.C. 354, 400 S.E.2d 781 (1991); Campbell v. Marion County Hosp. Dist., 354 S.C. 274, 580 S.E.2d 163 (Ct.App.2003); Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 344 S.C. 233, 542 S.E.2d 752 (Ct.App.2001). The standard of review for a declaratory judgment action is therefore determined by the nature of the underlying issue. Campbell, 354 S.C. at 279,580 S.E.2d at 165; see also Goldston v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 358 S.C. 157, 594 S.E.2d 511 (S.C. Ct.App. 2004) (Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 8 at 52) (stating that because declaratory judgment actions are neither legal nor equitable, standard of review depends on nature of underlying issues); Travelers Indem. Co. v. Auto World, 334 S.C. 137, 511 S.E.2d 692 (Ct.App.1999) (noting that suit for declaratory judgment is neither legal nor equitable, but is determined by nature of underlying issue).

A declaratory judgment action under the FOIA to determine whether certain information should be disclosed is an action at law. See South Carolina Tax Comm'n v. Gaston Copper Recycling Corp., 316 S.C. 163, 447 S.E.2d 843 (1994); Campbell, 354 S.C. at 280, 580 S.E.2d at 165. In an action at law tried without a jury, the appellate court's standard of review extends only to the correction of errors of law. Crary v. Djebelli, 329 S.C. 385, 496 S.E.2d 21 (1998); Townes Assocs., Ltd. v. City of Greenville, 266 S.C. 81, 221 S.E.2d 773 (1976); Okatie River v. Southeastern Site Prep, 353 S.C. 327, 577 S.E.2d 468 (Ct.App.2003). Thus, the trial court's factual findings will not be disturbed on appeal unless a review of the record discloses that there is no evidence which reasonably supports the judge's findings. Townes, 266 S.C. at 86, 221 S.E.2d at 775; Barnacle Broad., Inc. v. Baker Broad., Inc., 343 S.C. 140, 538 S.E.2d 672 (Ct.App.2000); see also Sloan v. Greenville County, 356 S.C. 531, 590 S.E.2d 338 (Ct.App.2003) (declaring that in actions at law, on appeal of case tried without jury, lower court must be affirmed where there is any evidence which reasonably supports judge's findings).

LAW/ANALYSIS
I. FOIA CLAIMS

The South Carolina Freedom of Information Act is codified as sections 30-4-10 to -165 in the South Carolina Code. See S.C.Code Ann. §§ 30-4-10 to -165 (1991 & Supp.2003). Upon request, FOIA mandates disclosure of records held by a "public body" unless the documents fall within enumerated exemptions. See S.C.Code Ann. §§ 30-4-30 to -40 (Supp. 2003). As our Legislature explicitly provided in enacting FOIA, disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act:

The General Assembly finds that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy. Toward this end, provisions of this chapter must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.

S.C.Code Ann. § 30-4-15 (1991).

The essential purpose of the FOIA is to protect the public from secret government activity. Campbell v. Marion County Hosp. Dist., 354 S.C. 274, 580 S.E.2d 163 (Ct.App.2003); see also Quality Towing, Inc. v. City of Myrtle Beach, 345 S.C. 156, 163, 547 S.E.2d 862, 865 (2001) ("FOIA was enacted to prevent the government from acting in secret."); Wiedemann v. Town of Hilton Head Island, 330 S.C. 532, 535 n. 4, 500 S.E.2d 783, 785 n. 4 (1998) (noting that "[t]he purpose of the FOIA is to protect the public from secret government activity"). The FOIA meets the demand for open government while preserving workable confidentiality in governmental decisionmaking. Bellamy v. Brown, 305 S.C. 291, 408 S.E.2d 219 (1991); Campbell, 354 S.C. at 281, 580 S.E.2d at 166.

"South Carolina's FOIA was designed to guarantee the public reasonable access to certain activities of the government." Fowler v. Beasley, 322 S.C. 463, 468, 472 S.E.2d 630, 633 (1996). The FOIA creates an affirmative duty on the part of public bodies to disclose information. Bellamy, 305 S.C. at 295, 408 S.E.2d at 221; Campbell, 354 S.C. at 281, 580 S.E.2d at 166. The purpose of the FOIA is to protect the public by providing for the disclosure of information. Id. The FOIA is remedial in nature and should be liberally construed to carry out the purpose mandated by the legislature. Campbell, 354 S.C. at 281, 580 S.E.2d at 166. The exemptions from disclosure under FOIA do not create a duty of nondisclosure. Bellamy, 305 S.C. at 295,408 S.E.2d at 221. At most, these exemptions simply allow public agencies the discretion to withhold exempted materials from public disclosure. Id. Indeed, consistent with FOIA's goal of broad disclosure, the exemptions from its mandates are to be narrowly construed. See Campbell, 354 S.C. at 281,580 S.E.2d at 166; see also quality Towing,345 S.C. at 161,547 S.E.2d at 864-65 (stating that FOIA is remedial in nature and should be liberally construed to carry out...

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