Glasgow Sch. Dist. v. Howard Cnty. Coroner, WD 83990

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtAnthony Rex Gabbert, Judge
Citation633 S.W.3d 822
Decision Date21 September 2021
Docket NumberWD 83990
Parties GLASGOW SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent, v. HOWARD COUNTY CORONER, Appellant.

633 S.W.3d 822

GLASGOW SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent,
v.
HOWARD COUNTY CORONER, Appellant.

WD 83990

Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District.

OPINION FILED: SEPTEMBER 21, 2021


Thomas A. Mickes, St. Louis, MO, Counsel for Respondent.

Richard B. Hicks, Columbia, MO, Counsel for Appellant.

Before Division One: Lisa White Hardwick, Presiding Judge, Alok Ahuja, Judge, Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge

Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge

The Howard County Coroner ("Coroner's Office") appeals the judgment of the Howard County Circuit Court finding that

633 S.W.3d 826

Coroner's Office violated the Sunshine Law and awarding a civil fine and attorney's fees to the plaintiff Glasgow School District ("School District"). In four points on appeal, Coroner's Office claims the trial court erred in finding a violation of the Sunshine Law, finding that the violation was purposeful, and in awarding attorney's fees. The judgment is affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Facts

On December 21, 2016, seventeen year-old K.S. committed suicide. On January 31, 2017, Coroner's Office held a coroner's inquest regarding the death of K.S. Coroner's Office held the inquest into K.S.’s death even though it had already determined the physical cause of death for K.S. and submitted a death certificate for K.S. The purpose of the inquest was to amend K.S.’s death certificate with the inquest jury's findings.

Coroner's Office heard that K.S. had been bullied at school. The coroner ("Coroner") chose to hold the inquest into K.S.’s suicide because he did not want to be responsible for letting another child die. Coroner hoped that holding the inquest might prevent another child's death. In an interview with the television network HBO in 2017, Coroner stated, "this is bullying that's so bad that a kind, 17 year old boy, took his life. We need to do something to prevent that from happening again."

The inquest was announced through a news release published in the Fayette Newspaper on January 10, 2017. Coroner's Office empaneled six jurors and conducted the inquest in an open manner before the general public. Numerous members of the community and local media attended the inquest.

The inquest was at the sole discretion of Coroner's Office. Coroner's Office was involved with determining which exhibits to present to the jury and the members of the public in attendance. Coroner's Office also determined what witnesses to call at the public hearing.

Coroner's Office presented all of the information and testimony at the inquest in front of the viewing public. There was no limiting instruction by anyone as to the use or dissemination of the evidence or testimony presented at the public inquest. It was transcribed in its entirety. The inquest concluded that K.S. died from a felony and identified an individual as the perpetrator. It also concluded School District was negligent. The person identified in the inquest as the responsible party was charged criminally, and those charges were pending from January 31, 2017 through July 12, 2019.

On February 2, 2017, School District requested a copy of the inquest transcript from Coroner's Office. It hoped to clear its name with respect to the bullying that occurred at school. On February 17, 2017, Sherry Shives requested a copy of the inquest transcript from Coroner's Office. Shives’ son had been identified as one of K.S.’s bullies, and Shives wanted to clear his name.

On February 17, 2017, Coroner's Office called the Attorney General's Office and inquired whether the transcript was an open record under the Sunshine Law. Coroner's Office was advised it may be an open record and to contact local counsel. On February 21, 2017, Coroner's Office spoke with April Wilson, the special prosecuting attorney assigned to K.S.’s case, about whether the transcript was an open record. Wilson advised she believed it was closed as an investigative report but would confirm that and let School District know.

On February 23, 2017, Coroner's Office provided Shives a copy of the inquest transcript, free of charge. On February 23,

633 S.W.3d 827

2017, Coroner's Office provided K.S.’s family a copy of the inquest transcript, free of charge.1 Coroner's Office did not provide a copy of the inquest transcript to School District on that date.

On February 24, 2017, School District made another request for the inquest transcript and exhibits. School District was informed it would have to pay for a copy of the inquest transcript. Coroner's Office did not provide a copy of the transcript to School District.

On February 25, 2017, Wilson told Coroner's son2 via text message that she believed that, if Coroner's Office sent her a copy of the inquest transcript, that it would become investigative and could not be released. On March 2, 2017, Wilson advised School District she believed the inquest transcript and exhibits were closed. Also on March 2, 2017, Coroner's Office advised School District that the inquest transcript and exhibits were closed as investigative records and would not be provided to School District.

On March 2, 2017, School District made another request to Coroner's Office for the inquest transcript and exhibits. On March 3, 2017, Coroner had his son email a copy of the inquest transcript to Wilson. Coroner's Office did not provide the transcript and exhibits to School District. On March 9, 2017, School District sent correspondence to Coroner's Officer following up on the March 2, 2017 request. It attached an Attorney General Opinion Letter3 from 1979 that stated in relevant part:

It is our view that the exception specified in § 610.025 are not applicable, and that the coroner's jury, constitutes a "public governmental body," that the coroner's records, unless specifically designated otherwise, are public records and that the inquest conducted by the coroner pursuant to Chapter 58 is a "public meeting" within the provision of the Sunshine Law. ... It is likewise our view that the county coroner does not have the authority the refuse to grant access to materials which may be presented at an inquest.

After reviewing this letter, Coroner's Office still chose not to provide a copy of the inquest transcript or exhibits to School District.

On March 13, 2017, Coroner's Office sent a letter to School District's counsel advising that the requested records were a part of Wilson's criminal investigation, were not open records, and could not be released until Wilson released them. On March 23, 2017, School District filed the underlying lawsuit requesting access to the inquest transcript and exhibits.

On June 7, 2017, the television network HBO published a video interview with Coroner. In the interview, Coroner discussed the inquest matter. Video footage from the inquest was aired. The contents of the suicide notes4 K.S. left were divulged. Some of the typed pages of the transcript of the inquest testimony were also shown on screen. Coroner knew his interview would be published when he gave it.5

633 S.W.3d 828

On October 9, 2017, the circuit court entered an order finding that Coroner's Office had wrongfully denied access to the inquest transcript and exhibits.6 Coroner's Office did not provide a copy of the inquest transcript to School District until November 1, 2017.

At a November 1, 2017 hearing regarding this matter, the circuit court judge told the Coroner that he was to exercise good faith to get with the sheriff's department to get School District the remaining inquest exhibits. Coroner did not reach out to the sheriff's department but instead directed his attorney to write a letter to the sheriff's department. In the letter dated November 2, 2017, Coroner wrote to School District that the exhibits were documents generated by the sheriff's department and are the property of the sheriff's department. The letter ended: "The Howard County Coroner's office is willing to provide copies of these exhibits to the Glasgow School District only if the Sheriff's department consents to their release, and provides copies of these documents to the Coroner's office." The letter did not mention the court's directive.

School District's counsel advised Coroner's Office that the letter sent to the sheriff's department did not comply with the court's directive that Coroner's Office exercise good faith to help School District get the inquest exhibits. Coroner's Office advised School District that if it wished to obtain the inquest exhibits then it should subpoena them. School District subsequently subpoenaed the exhibits.

A bench trial was held in January 2020. The court held that Coroner's Office is not a "law enforcement agency" under section 610.100.1(5). Coroner's Office is a Missouri public governmental body under the Sunshine Law, Chapter 610. The court determined that Coroner's Office wrongfully and repeatedly denied access to open public records requested by School District in violation of the Sunshine Law. The violations were purposeful, occurred on multiple occasions, and were a serious offense. The court ordered Coroner's Office to pay a civil penalty of $500.

The court also awarded School District its attorney's fees. The court found...

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1 practice notes
  • Sansone v. Governor of Mo., WD84426
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • June 7, 2022
    .... . . was not contained in an existing record held by" the agency). Similarly, in Glasgow School District v. Howard County Coroner, 633 S.W.3d 822 (Mo. App. 2021), we recently held that the Howard County Coroner's Office had not violated the Sunshine Law when it failed to disclose exhibits ......
1 cases
  • Sansone v. Governor of Mo., WD84426
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Missouri (US)
    • June 7, 2022
    .... . . was not contained in an existing record held by" the agency). Similarly, in Glasgow School District v. Howard County Coroner, 633 S.W.3d 822 (Mo. App. 2021), we recently held that the Howard County Coroner's Office had not violated the Sunshine Law when it failed to disclose exhibits ......

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