Collins & Lacy’s Co-Founder secures significant FOIA victory in Court of Appeals

Joel W. Collins, Jr.Last week, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued a ruling, which reemphasizes the General Assembly’s intent to grant Freedom of Information Act applicants an expedited resolution to their claims. Joel W. Collins, Jr., a founding partner of Collins & Lacy, along with Patrick Quinn of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, secured this victory for their client, Paul Osmundson, the plaintiff in the underlying FOIA action. Osmundson is an editor of The State Newspaper.

In Osmundson v. School District 5 of Lexington and Richland Counties, Op. No. 6066 (June 26, 2024), Circuit Court dismissed Osmundson’s FOIA action under S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-100(A) because no hearing was held within ten days of the date of service of his complaint against Lexington/Richland School District Five. The Court of Appeals held this dismissal was in error and remanded the matter back to the Circuit Court for disposition upon its merits.

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Enacted in 1978, the South Carolina FOIA’s purpose is to assure 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.” S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-14. Moreover, the Supreme Court has observed FOIA is grounded in the “principle of an open, transparent system of government, vital to maintaining an informed electorate and preventing the secret exercise of governmental power with its potential corruption.” Disabato v. South Carolina Ass’n of School Adm’rs, 404 S.C. 433 (2013).

Paul Osmundson’s Complaint and the “10-Day Hearing” Provision
Osmundson’s complaint alleged: the Board of Trustees of School District 5 secretly voted to terminate Dr. Christina Melton, the district superintendent; removed from the minutes of a meeting an opinion of the South Carolina Attorney General that explained the need for meetings of Board officers to be open to the public; secretly negotiated a termination agreement with outgoing superintendent; and deliberately misled the public regarding the superintendent’s “resignation.” Just prior to her “resignation,” Dr. Melton had been named superintendent of the year by the South Carolina Department of Education.

Osmundson’s complaint sought a declaratory judgment, including injunctive relief requiring all Board of Trustees meetings and Meetings of Board Officers to be conducted openly and in strict compliance with the South Carolina FOIA. The school district thereafter moved to dismiss.

At issue in the motion to dismiss was a provision within the South Carolina FOIA, which requires that “[u]pon the filing of the request for declaratory judgment or injunctive relief … the chief administrative judge of the circuit court must schedule an initial hearing within ten days of the service on all parties.” In the case at bar, the chief administrative judge in the Fifth Judicial Circuit, however, did not schedule a hearing within the 10-day window. The judge then dismissed the action against the school district. This dismissal came despite the fact Paul Osmundson had no authority to set a hearing or force the court to act.

The Holding: Our Appellate Court’s Use of the Plain Meaning Rule, Legislative Intent & Legislative History to Reverse the Lower Court
Applying the plain meaning rule of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals held the Circuit Court incorrectly interpreted the South Carolina FOIA’s 10-day provision, stating that “the plain meaning of [§ 30-4-100(A)] requires the chief administrative judge of the circuit court to schedule an initial hearing within ten days.” The Court of Appeals also found that the Legislature’s intent behind the 10-day requirement was to benefit FOIA applicants. Going even further in its analysis, the Court acknowledged legislative history, finding that amendments to the South Carolina FOIA since its enactment have been to expand the rights of the public, and that amendments to the statute “have generally been in favor of, not against, requesters.”

The holding in Osmundson is a victory for all South Carolinians. The ruling upholds the fundamental principle of an open and transparent system of government and reaffirms the citizenry’s state constitutional right to a speedy remedy. See S.C. Const., Art. I, § 9. (“All courts shall be public, and every person shall have speedy remedy therein for wrongs sustained.”). Under the Circuit Court’s interpretation of the 10-day provision, a requester seeking a remedy would be at the administrative mercy of the court. Moreover, an affirmation of such on appeal would have yielded detrimental ramifications to several analogous statutes in our South Carolina Code that have timing requirements for an administrative hearing.

About Collins & Lacy, P.C.

Collins & Lacy is a statewide business defense firm in South Carolina that delivers legal representation for our clients through solid preparation, execution, and client-oriented service aimed at success. Located in the State’s capital city of Columbia, the firm represents local, regional and national clients in the areas of construction; hospitality/retail and entertainment law; insurance/bad faith; products liability; professional liability; commercial transportation; privacy, data management, and cybersecurity; mediation; criminal defense; and governmental affairs/issue advocacy.