The City of Nashua denied a Right-to-Know Law records request filed by Colquhoun for all email communications between two City employees during a specific two-month period. Subsequently, Colquhoun filed an action in Superior Court asking for the records and requesting attorney’s fees. At issue was whether the request “reasonably described” the desired records. Ultimately, the City provided several hundred emails between the two City employees during the specified time period, and the trial court denied the award of attorney’s fees to Colquhoun. Colquhoun appealed the denial of the award of attorney’s fees.
In deciding the issue of the award of attorney’s fees, the Supreme Court focused on the second part of the statutory requirement that attorney’s fees shall be awarded if the trial court finds that the lawsuit was necessary to make the requested information available and that the public body knew or should have known that its conduct violated the statute.
In analyzing the question of whether the City knew or should have known that its conduct violated the statute, the Court determined that, due to the fact that the City provided some responsive records after suit was filed, and in light of Court’s prior ruling in ATV Watch v. N.H. Dep’t of Trans. requiring a public body to make a “reasonable search” for records, the City knew or should have known that its conduct violated the statute when it did not provide any records.
The Court also rejected the City’s argument that if it would be unduly burdensome to search and locate all records sought in a particular request, since then the City would be relieved from having to undertake any search.
Although the Court expressly declined to determine when a records request “reasonably describes” the records sought, it affirmed that such a determination “is highly context-specific.” Further, the Court stated that, for the purposes of this appeal, it agreed with the City that “[a] reasonably described request would be sufficient if it enabled a professional employee of the agency who was familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.”
As the Plaintiff had limited both the time frame and the scope of her request to “a clearly delineated group of documents” – all email communications between two City employees during a specific two-month period – the Court held that the City knew or should have known that it had an obligation to make a “reasonable search” pursuant to the decision in ATV Watch.
The dissenting justices argued that the lack of prior determination by the Court about what constitutes a “reasonably described” request meant that the Court need not compel payment of attorney’s fees in this case as the law is unsettled and, therefore, the City would not be on notice of what the law is.