Faber v. King

Decision Date12 March 2015
Docket Number34,204,34,194.
Citation2015 NMSC 015,348 P.3d 173
PartiesDaniel M. FABER, Plaintiff–Petitioner, v. Gary K. KING, Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, Defendant–Respondent. Gary K. King, Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, Defendant–Petitioner, v. Daniel M. Faber, Plaintiff–Respondent.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Hector Balderas, Attorney General, Scott Fuqua, Assistant Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, for Respondent and Petitioner Gary K. King.

Tucker Law Firm, P.C., Steven Lee Tucker, Santa Fe, NM, for Petitioner and Respondent Daniel M. Faber.

OPINION

MAES, Justice.

{1} State agencies are supposed to make their documents available to the public under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), NMSA 1978, Sections 14–2–1 to –12 (1947, as amended through 2009). See § 14–2–1(A) ( “Every person has a right to inspect public records of this state....”). Therefore, when an agency wrongfully denies a request for documents, Section 14–2–12(D) of IPRA states that [t]he court shall award damages, costs and reasonable attorneys' fees to any person whose written request has been denied and is successful in a court action to enforce the provisions of [IPRA].” The parties do not dispute that the Attorney General wrongfully denied the IPRA request. Instead, the issue in these consolidated cases is what type of damages were authorized by the Legislature in Section 14–212(D). We hold that Section 14–2–12(D) permits compensatory or actual damages because the plain language, purpose, and history of IPRA indicate that neither punitive nor statutory damages were intended by the Legislature. We also hold that Faber is not eligible for nominal damages.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

{2} Attorney Daniel Faber (Faber) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three assistant attorneys general alleging gender discrimination in connection with their salaries. The Attorney General filed a motion to stay litigation pending resolution of his motion to dismiss the complaint based on an immunity defense. On May 28, 2010, the federal district court entered a memorandum opinion and order granting the Attorney General's motion to stay all proceedings, including discovery; the federal district court later lifted the stay on January 14, 2011.

{3} On August 23, 2010, Faber filed an IPRA request in his own name seeking employment data for every attorney who had been employed by the Attorney General's Office since January 1987. On August 26, 2010, the records custodian of the Attorney General's Office denied the IPRA request, stating that [o]n August 25, 2010[,] I received your request to inspect certain records. This request is being denied as these records involve a current lawsuit and appear to circumvent the discovery process and the current Order Staying Discovery (attached).”

{4} Faber filed a complaint for damages and a petition for writ of mandamus in the state district court against the Attorney General on September 7, 2010, alleging that his IPRA request had been wrongfully denied. The state district court found that the stay of discovery entered by the federal court did not preempt the statutory rights granted to New Mexico citizens by IPRA, and that the Attorney General violated IPRA by denying Faber's August 23, 2010, request. The court also issued a writ of mandamus ordering the Attorney General to comply and ruled that damages would be considered at a later date.

{5} Faber subsequently moved for an award of “damages of $100 per day from the day the noncompliance began (August 26, 2010) until the day Defendant complies....” As support, Faber noted that courts may award damages of $100 per day for failure to timely respond to an IPRA request under Section 14–2–11(C). Faber submitted that the same per diem damages should apply for wrongful denial of requests under Section 14–2–12(D). The state district court awarded damages of $10 per day from the date of the wrongful denial to the date the stay was lifted and thereafter “damages of $100 per day until the records are provided,” and $257.19 in costs to Faber. The Attorney General appealed the state district court's award of damages. The determination of the IPRA violation was not at issue on appeal. See generally Faber v. King, 2013–NMCA–080, 306 P.3d 519.

{6} The New Mexico Court of Appeals did not directly address the type of damages that are appropriate under Section 14–2–12(D). Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals held that “damages for enforcement of a denied [IPRA] request are governed by Section 14–2–12(D), not Section 14–2–11(C),” and that the “statutory maximum per-day penalty of Section 14–2–11(C) does not create any ‘standard’ for an amount of damages under Section 14–2–12(D) as asserted by Faber.” Faber, 2013–NMCA–080, ¶ 15, 306 P.3d 519. Therefore, the Court determined that [t]he only question we must answer is whether the nature and amount of the award was supported.” Id. ¶ 9. The Court of Appeals also noted that the “term ‘damages' under IPRA has not been construed or limited by our courts.” Id. ¶ 11. The Court of Appeals held that Faber cannot receive Section 14–2–11(C) per diem damages under Section 14–2–12(D) and that a district court must specify and measure the nature of the damages. Faber, 2013–NMCA–080, ¶ 15, 306 P.3d 519. Since the nature of the damages was unclear from the record, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the state district court to “enter findings supporting any award of compensatory damages so that we may, on review, know the basis for such damages and may then measure them against any award of punitive damages.” Id. ¶ 17.

{7} Faber and the Attorney General appealed separately to this Court to clarify what type of damages a court is permitted to award under Section 14–2–12(D). We granted both petitions for certiorari and consolidated the cases. Faber v. King, 2013–NMCERT–007.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

{8} Our review requires us to interpret provisions of IPRA. Interpretation of the language of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo. Cooper v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc., 2002–NMSC–020, ¶ 16, 132 N.M. 382, 49 P.3d 61. We construe IPRA in light of its purpose and interpret it “to mean what the Legislature intended it to mean, and to accomplish the ends sought to be accomplished by it.” San Juan Agric. Water Users Ass'n v. KNME–TV (San Juan), 2011–NMSC–011, ¶ 14, 150 N.M. 64, 257 P.3d 884 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

{9} “In discerning the Legislature's intent, we are aided by classic canons of statutory construction, and [w]e look first to the plain language of the statute, giving the words their ordinary meaning, unless the Legislature indicates a different one was intended.” City of Albuquerque v. Montoya, 2012–NMSC–007, ¶ 12, 274 P.3d 108 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). In addition to looking at the statutory language, “consider the history and background of the statute.” State v. Rivera, 2004–NMSC–001, ¶ 13, 134 N.M. 768, 82 P.3d 939. We examine the overall structure of the statute and its function in the comprehensive legislative scheme. See id.

{10} To the extent that the Attorney General argues the district court awarded an erroneous amount of damages, we review an award of damages for substantial evidence. See Moody v. Stribling, 1999–NMCA–094, ¶¶ 37, 40, 127 N.M. 630, 985 P.2d 1210 (“As long as there is a reasonable method used to achieve an amount of damages, we will accept that amount.”).

III. DISCUSSION
A. Section 14–2–12 does not authorize the award of statutory damages

{11} We look first to the plain meaning of the statute to determine what damages are allowed when a party wrongfully denies a request for documents. When a state agency receives a written IPRA request, IPRA requires the agency's custodian of records to timely respond and IPRA also forbids the agency from wrongfully denying the request. See §§ 14–2–8 to –12. IPRA then obligates state agencies in two primary ways. First, it requires an agency's custodian of records to either (1) “permit the inspection immediately or as soon as practicable under the circumstances, but not later than fifteen days after receiving [the] written request,” Section 14–2–8(D), or (2) deny the written request, but “the custodian shall provide the requester with a written explanation of the denial ... within fifteen days after the request for inspection was received,” Section 14–2–11(B)(3). Second, IPRA allows a claimant to file an action to enforce the procedures of IPRA when a records request has been wrongfully denied through separate mechanisms: Section 14–2–11, entitled “Procedure for denied requests,” and Section 14–2–12, entitled “Enforcement.”

{12} Sections 14–2–11 and 14–2–12 create separate remedies depending on the stage of the IPRA request. Section 14–2–11 only concerns the procedures a public entity shall employ when the public entity denies an IPRA request. Section 14–2–11 requires a public entity to respond to a records request within fifteen days unless the “request has been determined to be excessively burdensome or broad.” Section 14–2–11(A). If the request is denied, “the custodian shall provide the requester with a written explanation of the denial.” Section 14–2–11(B). Section 14–2–11 also addresses the damages available if the public entity does not adhere to the denial procedures. Specifically, Section 14–2–11(C) provides that:

C. A custodian who does not deliver or mail a written explanation of denial within fifteen days after receipt of a written request for inspection is subject to an action to enforce the provisions of the Inspection of Public Records Act ... and the requester may be awarded damages. Damages shall:
(1) be awarded if the failure to provide a timely explanation of denial is determined to be unreasonable;
(2) not exceed one hundred dollars ($100) per day;
(3) accrue from the day the public body is in noncompliance until a written denial is issued; and
(4) be payable from the funds of the
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