Swickard v. Wayne County Medical Examiner

Decision Date19 September 1991
Docket NumberDocket No. 89602
CourtMichigan Supreme Court
PartiesJoe SWICKARD, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. WAYNE COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER, Defendant-Appellant. 438 Mich. 536, 475 N.W.2d 304, 19 Media L. Rep. 1833
OPINION

RILEY, Justice.

In this appeal, we are asked to decide whether an autopsy report and toxicology test results regarding the late Chief Judge of the 36th District Court, Longworth Quinn, Jr., are properly exempt from disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Act, M.C.L. Sec. 15.231 et seq.; M.S.A. Sec. 4.1801(1) et seq. We are further asked to determine whether the trial court erred in refusing defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing. We hold that defendant was not justified under the FOIA in withholding the autopsy report and test results. We further hold that the lower court did not err in refusing defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.

I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

On January 4, 1990, the Honorable Longworth Quinn, Jr., was found shot to death in his mother's home. On January 5, the Wayne County Medical Examiner's office performed an autopsy on the body of Judge Quinn. 1 The postmortem examination found that the immediate cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. 2 The death certificate listed no other causes of death.

Within days after the body was found, Roger Chesley, Jim Finkelstein, and plaintiff Joe Swickard wrote an article in the Detroit Free Press concerning the death of Judge Quinn. 3 At one point, the article stated:

"Law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation indicated that drug paraphernalia was found in the west-side home of Quinn's mother, where the 46-year old chief judge of 36th District Court had been house-sitting.... Authorities said they had not determined the significance of any items recovered."

The article also stated that "[f]riends and colleagues said they knew of nothing that would suggest Quinn used drugs."

On January 23, 1990, plaintiff wrote to Dr. Bader J. Cassin, the Wayne County Medical Examiner and defendant in this action, requesting under the FOIA that the autopsy report and toxicology test results be released so that plaintiff could inspect and make copies of the documents. Plaintiff intended to use the information in an article he planned to write for the Detroit Free Press. On January 29, 1990, defendant advised that he would only release the information upon receipt of a "duly executed authorization" by the decedent's next of kin.

On March 14, 1990, plaintiff filed suit in the Wayne Circuit Court, 4 claiming that the FOIA required defendant to release the results of the postmortem examination. The complaint and an order to show cause were served on defendant on March 19. Defendant answered the complaint and claimed that the FOIA exempted the requested information from disclosure, and defendant requested an evidentiary hearing pursuant to M.C.L. Sec. 15.240(3); M.S.A. Sec. 4.1801(10)(3). On March 23, the court 5 refused defendant's request for an evidentiary hearing, and the court introduced into the record the parties' agreement regarding the substance of the defendant's proposed testimony. On the same day, the trial court entered an order requiring defendant to make available "all autopsy reports, toxicology test results and related documents" for plaintiff's inspection and copying.

Defendant appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeals stayed execution of the order. On April 24, 1990, the Court of Appeals allowed Dorothy Quinn, the decedent's mother and temporary personal representative of his estate, to intervene in the action. On July 16, 1990, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision, and found that the FOIA compelled disclosure of the documents. The Court also determined that the trial court properly ruled that there was no need for an evidentiary hearing. 184 Mich.App. 662, 459 N.W.2d 92 (1990).

Defendant appealed the Court of Appeals decision, and this Court granted leave to appeal on October 24, 1990. 436 Mich. 880.

II. INTRODUCTION TO FOIA

Before the enactment of the FOIA in 1977, Michigan enjoyed a long history of allowing citizens free access to public records. Booth Newspapers, Inc. v. Muskegon Probate Judge, 15 Mich.App. 203, 166 N.W.2d 546 (1968). In Booth, the Court of Appeals stated:

"The fundamental rule in Michigan on the matter before us, first enunciated in the case of Burton v Tuite (1889), 78 Mich 363; , is that citizens have the general right of free access to, and public inspection of, public records.

* * * * * *

"The Nowack [v. Auditor General, 243 Mich. 200, 219 N.W. 749 (1928) ] decision has 'placed Michigan at the vanguard of those states holding that a citizen's accessibility to public records must be given the broadest possible effect.' " Id. at 205, 207, 219 N.W. 749.

Some ten years after the federal FOIA was enacted by Congress, Michigan enacted its FOIA in 1977. One of the reasons prompting the legislation was concern over abuses in the operation of government. A policy of full disclosure underlies the FOIA. The preamble to the act, M.C.L. Sec. 15.231(2); M.S.A. Sec. 4.1801(1)(2), provides:

"It is the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act. The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process."

Section 3(1) of the act states:

"Upon an oral or written request which describes the public record sufficiently to enable the public body to find the public record, a person has a right to inspect, copy, or receive copies of a public record of a public body, except as otherwise expressly provided by section 13."

Therefore, all public records are subject to full disclosure under the act unless the material is specifically exempt under Sec. 13. Also, when a public body refuses to disclose a requested document under the act, and the requester sues to compel disclosure, the public agency bears the burden of proving that the refusal was justified under the act. M.C.L. Sec. 15.240(1); M.S.A. Sec. 4.1801(10)(1).

In construing the provisions of the act, we keep in mind that the FOIA is intended primarily as a prodisclosure statute and the exemptions to disclosure are to be narrowly construed. 6 State Employees Ass'n v. Dep't of Management & Budget, 428 Mich. 104, 404 N.W.2d 606 (1987).

Defendant does not dispute that the county medical examiner's office is a "public body," nor does he dispute that the test results and report requested by plaintiff are "public records." We agree that the county coroner's office is a "public body" under Sec. 2(b)(iii) of the act. 7 We also believe that the documents prepared by defendant were prepared "in the performance of an official function," and are therefore "public records." 8

III. DISCUSSION OF EXEMPTION Sec. 13(1)(a)

Section 13(1)(a) of the FOIA provides:

"A public body may exempt from disclosure as a public record under this act:

"(a) Information of a personal nature where the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy." M.C.L. Sec. 15.243(1)(a); M.S.A. Sec. 4.1801(13)(1)(a).

Defendant and the intervenor contend that this exemption justifies defendant's refusal to disclose the documents. We most recently encountered Sec. 13(1)(a) in State Employees Ass'n, supra. 9 In State Employees Ass'n, the plaintiff was the labor representative of 26,000 civil service employees. The plaintiff requested under the FOIA that the Department of Management and Budget disclose information containing the home addresses of the employees. The department, the defendant in the case, withheld the addresses, claiming that disclosure would constitute a " 'clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy' " under Sec. 13(1)(a). Id. at 123, 404 N.W.2d 606. While interpreting the notion of "privacy" under Sec. 13(1)(a), in the lead opinion Justice Cavanagh wrote:

"The Legislature made no attempt to define the right of privacy. We are left to apply the principles of privacy developed under the common law and our constitution. The contours and limits are thus to be determined by the court, as the trier of fact, on a case-by-case basis in the tradition of the common law. Such an approach permits, and indeed requires, scrutiny of the particular facts of each case, to identify those in which ordinarily impersonal information takes on 'an intensely personal character' justifying nondisclosure under the privacy exemption." Id.

In an earlier case discussing Sec. 13(1)(a), Kestenbaum v. Michigan State Univ, 414 Mich. 510, 528, n. 7, 327 N.W.2d 783 (1982), Chief Justice Fitzgerald noted:

"Determining the degree of an invasion of privacy should not be a difficult task for courts, since they have demonstrated their abilities to do so inother areas. When the phrase 'clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy' is used in tort litigation, 'courts have quantified the magnitude of the infringement by deciding whether the matters or information made public would be "offensive and objectionable to a reasonable man of ordinary sensibilities." The customs, mores, or ordinary views of the community have been used as references in this determination.' (Footnotes omitted.) Hoglund & Kahan, Invasion of Privacy and the Freedom of Information Act: Getman v NLRB, 40 Geo Wash...

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