Institution v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., Record No. 130934.

Docket NºRecord No. 130934.
Citation756 S.E.2d 435, 287 Va. 330
Case DateApril 17, 2014
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

287 Va. 330
756 S.E.2d 435

AMERICAN TRADITION INSTITUTE, et al.
v.
RECTOR AND VISITORS of the UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, et al.

Record No. 130934.

Supreme Court of Virginia.

April 17, 2014.


[756 S.E.2d 436]


David W. Schnare (D.Z. Kaufman; Free Market Environmental Law Clinic; Kaufman Law Group, on briefs), for appellants.

Richard C. Kast, Associate General Counsel; Madelyn F. Wessel, Associate General Counsel (Peter J. Fontaine; Scott J. Newton; Cozen O'Connor; Stephens, Boatwright, Cooper & Coleman, on brief), for appellees.


Amici Curiae: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 17 Media Organizations (Robert G. Scott, Jr.; Bruce D. Brown; Davis Wright Tremaine, on brief), in support of appellants.

Amici Curiae: The American Council on Education, The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, The Association of American Medical Colleges, The Association of American Universities, The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, The Association of Public and Land–Grant Universities, and the National Academy of Sciences (Ada Meloy; Jessica L. Ellsworth; Stephanie J. Gold;

[756 S.E.2d 437]

Christopher A. Lott; Hogan Lovells, on brief), in support of appellees.

Amici Curiae: The American Association of University Professors and Union of Concerned Scientists (Thaila K. Sundaresan; Don Bradford Hardin, Jr.; David W. Ogden; Daniel S. Volchok; Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, on brief), in support of appellees.


Present: KINSER, C.J., LEMONS, GOODWYN, MILLETTE, MIMS, and POWELL, JJ., and LACY, S.J.

Opinion by Justice DONALD W. LEMONS.

In this appeal, we consider whether the Circuit Court of Prince William County (“trial court”) erred by denying a request for disclosure of certain documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (“VFOIA”), Code § 2.2–3700 et seq., and whether a public body may impose charges for the cost of reviewing documents under the statutory exclusions.1

I. Facts and Proceedings Below

Dr. Michael Mann (“Professor Mann”) is a climate scientist and former professor at the University of Virginia (“UVA”), whose scholarly work has generated much scientific and political interest.2 On January 6, 2011, American Tradition Institute and Robert Marshall (collectively, “ATI”) sent a request to UVA, a public university, seeking all of the documents that “Dr. Michael Mann produced and/or received while working for the University ... and otherwise while using its facilities and resources....”

Following ATI's January 6, 2011 request, UVA responded that it could not comply within the pre-set five-day compliance deadline under the VFOIA. SeeCode § 2.2–3704(B). ATI and UVA negotiated over a document production and fee schedule. After multiple email exchanges, ATI and UVA agreed to a production schedule and a $2,000 deposit to defray costs. On March 10, 2011, UVA received ATI's $2,000 deposit and began assessing its VFOIA request shortly thereafter.

On April 6, 2011, UVA sent ATI an email which read in part:

I am writing to follow up on your Freedom of Information Act request of January 6, 2011, for a wide array of records and documents concerning former University of Virginia faculty member Michael Mann. As I previously informed you, the University has identified 34,062 potentially responsive documents on the server we have previously agreed to be the sole repository of any possibly responsive material. We have now segregated from that mass of documents approximately 8,000 that are potentially responsive to your request and have been reviewing these documents for possible disclosure. As of today we have exhausted in this effort the initial payment you made. Consequently, we will undertake no further review unless you wish to pay another installment on our original estimate of $8,500.

To date we have reviewed approximately 1,000 of the roughly 8,000 documents potentially responsive to your request. I anticipate that a first group of responsive, non-exempt documents which may be lawfully disclosed will be released to you shortly.

On April 7, 2011, ATI complied with UVA's request and deposited additional funds so that the University would “continue [its]

[756 S.E.2d 438]

work to produce responsive documents.” On April 29, 2011, UVA's associate general counsel indicated that the first set of documents would be available by May 6, 2011. However, ATI received no documents on that date so it filed a “Petition for Mandamus and Injunctive Relief” (“Petition”) in the trial court. ATI's Petition asked the trial court to:


(1) [O]rder [UVA] to provide the requested documents on a timely schedule; (2) bar [UVA] from demanding payment for any costs other than “accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records”; (3) order the Parties to engage in a process that will minimize the number of excluded documents the Court will have to review in camera; (4) order payment of the Petitioners' reasonable costs associated with the instant matter; and (5) order such necessary and proper injunctive relief or other injunctive relief as this Court deems just and proper.

On May 24, 2011, the trial court entered an “Order on Protection of Documents” which stated, in part:

The Respondent [UVA] may designate as Exempt Information any requested public record. Such designation shall constitute a representation to the Court that the Respondent ... in good faith believes that the information so designated constitutes Exempt Information.... Respondent shall provide the Petitioners' [ATI] counsel ... copies of all Exempt Information in a form to be agreed upon between the parties.... The Petitioners shall have 90 days after receipt of the Exempt Information to review it, negotiate with the Respondents, and if they choose, file a petition with the Court for in camera review for determination as to whether the Respondent properly designated the records as Exempt Information as defined herein.3

In an accompanying order, the trial court also directed UVA to release 1,793 emails “no later than 90 days after the date of this order.”


In June 2011, the trial court conducted a hearing on whether UVA could charge ATI for the costs of reviewing the identified records according to the requirements of various statutory exemptions and limitations. After hearing oral argument the trial court entered an order holding that review of records sought pursuant to the Act to assure that the records are responsive, are not exempt from disclosure, and may be disclosed without violating other provisions of law is a necessary part of the process of “accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records” explicitly authorized by Code § 2.2–3704(F) and therefore represented a cost that may be imposed upon the requester under the VFOIA.

In September 2011, Professor Mann filed a motion to intervene, arguing that the University could not sufficiently protect his interests in privacy, academic freedom, and free speech. The trial court granted his motion on November 1, 2011.

Throughout 2012, the parties reviewed the requested documents and developed a series of exemplars for the trial court to review. UVA offered 14 exemplars. ATI proposed 17. On September 17, 2012 and April 2, 2013, the trial court conducted an in camera review of the exemplars and heard oral argument to determine whether the documents should be classified as exempt. The parties primarily disputed documents that may have been “proprietary.” The significance of the dispute is highlighted by the use of the term in Code § 2.2–3705.4(4) which addresses certain public records that are exempt from disclosure. To be exempt, the public record must be:

Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education, other than the institutions' financial or administrative records, in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues, whether sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a

[756 S.E.2d 439]

governmental body or a private concern, where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented.

Code § 2.2–3705.4(4).


UVA argued that the definition of “proprietary” applied in Green v. Lewis, 221 Va. 547, 555, 272 S.E.2d 181, 186 (1980), should be applied in the VFOIA context. In Green we stated: “A proprietary right is a right customarily associated with ownership, title, and possession. It is an interest or a right of one who exercises dominion over a thing or property, of one who manages and controls.” Id. In contrast, ATI argued that the General Assembly intended to equate “proprietary” with “competitive advantage.” In application, ATI limited its concept of competitive advantage to disclosures that would cause pecuniary harm. The trial court adopted UVA's position and applied the concept of “proprietary” discussed in Green.

After reviewing the exemplars and hearing oral argument, the trial court entered its final order on the Petition and held that:

(1) Professor Mann's business correspondence was public record; but that his “purely personal correspondence not relating to public business” did not constitute a public record under VFOIA;

(2) Professor Mann's emails were scientific and scholarly;

(3) Professor Mann's emails were not “publicly released, published, copyrighted, or patented”; 4

(4) the definition of “proprietary” in Code § 2.2–3705.4(4) means “a thing or property owned or in the possession of one who manages and controls them, in this case, the University.... The concept of commercial competitive advantage in [Code § 2.2–3705.6] does not modify the meaning of ‘proprietary nature’ within [Code § 2.2–3705.4(4) ]”; and

(5) the [e]xemplars were either personal emails not qualifying as public records or they met the requirements of the “proprietary research,” “scholastic record” and “personnel record” exclusions.

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11 practice notes
  • Highland Mining Co. v. W. Va. Univ. Sch. of Med., No. 14–0370.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • May 21, 2015
    ...at 152, 95 S.Ct. 1504.Our holding today comports with American Tradition Institute v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 287 Va. 330, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014) ( “UVA ”), where the Virginia Supreme Court was faced with facts analogous to the instant case. In UVA, a requester bro......
  • Va. Dep't of Corr. v. Surovell, Record No. 141780.
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • September 17, 2015
    ...v. Bogard, 264 Va. 219, 225, 563 S.E.2d 719, 722 (2002) ).290 Va. 263American Tradition Inst. v. Rector and Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 287 Va. 330, 338–39, 756 S.E.2d 435, 439 (2014) (second and third alterations in original).B. VFOIA On appeal, VDOC asserts that the circuit court erred ......
  • Transparent GMU v. George Mason Univ., Record No. 181375
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • December 12, 2019
    ...opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.’ " American Tradition Inst. v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va ., 287 Va. 330, 339, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014) (quoting Code § 2.2-3700(B) ). However,a VFOIA request only applies to a "public body or its officers and employees."......
  • Meritor, Inc. v. State ex rel. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Okla., Case No. 117,498
    • United States
    • United States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma
    • September 27, 2019
    ...was not limited to a commercial or financial advantage. American Tradition Institute v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia , 287 Va. 330, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014). The court approved a definition of "proprietary" it had used in an earlier decision: "a right customarily associated wi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • Highland Mining Co. v. W. Va. Univ. Sch. of Med., No. 14–0370.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • May 21, 2015
    ...at 152, 95 S.Ct. 1504.Our holding today comports with American Tradition Institute v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 287 Va. 330, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014) ( “UVA ”), where the Virginia Supreme Court was faced with facts analogous to the instant case. In UVA, a requester bro......
  • Va. Dep't of Corr. v. Surovell, Record No. 141780.
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • September 17, 2015
    ...v. Bogard, 264 Va. 219, 225, 563 S.E.2d 719, 722 (2002) ).290 Va. 263American Tradition Inst. v. Rector and Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 287 Va. 330, 338–39, 756 S.E.2d 435, 439 (2014) (second and third alterations in original).B. VFOIA On appeal, VDOC asserts that the circuit court erred ......
  • Transparent GMU v. George Mason Univ., Record No. 181375
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • December 12, 2019
    ...opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.’ " American Tradition Inst. v. Rector and Visitors of Univ. of Va ., 287 Va. 330, 339, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014) (quoting Code § 2.2-3700(B) ). However,a VFOIA request only applies to a "public body or its officers and employees."......
  • Meritor, Inc. v. State ex rel. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Okla., Case No. 117,498
    • United States
    • United States State Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma. Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma
    • September 27, 2019
    ...was not limited to a commercial or financial advantage. American Tradition Institute v. Rector and Visitors of University of Virginia , 287 Va. 330, 756 S.E.2d 435 (2014). The court approved a definition of "proprietary" it had used in an earlier decision: "a right customarily associated wi......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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