Green v. SAU #55

Electronic Records Must be Produced Electronically
New Hampshire Supreme Court No. 2015-0274
Tuesday, April 19, 2016

This case began when the plaintiff, a member of the school board, made a Right-to-Know Law request for various records from the School Administrative Unit. These records apparently existed in electronic form. The SAU responded that the board member could come in the “see” the documents, and so the board member instead requested that the records be sent electronically. The plaintiff then further stated she would take the records in paper or electronic form. The SAU adhered to its current offer to allow her to see the records at the business office. At the trial court level, the judge determined that the Right-to-Know Law did not require electronic documents to be produced electronically, interpreting RSA 91-A:4, V as giving public bodies and agencies an option to do so, rather than a mandate.

On appeal, the issue was whether governmental records, which exist electronically, must be provided electronically in response to a Right-to-Know Law request. At the center of the appeal was RSA 91-A:4, V and its use of the word “may.” The plaintiff argued that the first sentence of the statute gives two options for disclosure: provide original records or copy records to electronic format. Furthermore, she argued that the second sentence of RSA 91-A:4, V meant that a hard-copy could be produced only if copying the requested documents to electronic media is not “reasonably practical” or if a different method of receipt is requested.

On the other hand, the SAU argued that the use of the word “may” rather than “shall” means that it was their discretion whether to produce the records electronically. They further argued that the law puts no affirmative production duty on public bodies, but rather requires only that records be made available for inspection and copying.

The Court found both interpretations to be reasonable, rendering the statute ambiguous. Therefore, to interpret these provisions of RSA 91-A, the Court looked to the purpose of the law and the broad construction of it, holding in favor of the plaintiff. The Court said there was no evidence that the paper records the SAU offered to make available were not the “original records,” or that sending them electronically was not “reasonably practical.” The Court also noted that many records are maintained electronically, and requiring electronic production in these circumstances was not only generally more efficient and cost-effective, but also “ensures the greatest degree of openness and the greatest amount of public access to the decisions made by the public officials,” thus furthering the purpose of the law.

Learn More in Court's Decision.