House committee: Oklahomans may sue for Open Meeting Act violations, be awarded attorney fees
Oklahomans may sue to enforce the state Open Meeting Act without having to prove they were individually injured by the alleged violation, a state House committee unanimously agreed Thursday. And successful plaintiffs in such cases would be entitled to reasonable attorney fees under a bill approved 9-0 by members of the Government Modernization committee.
HB 2391 would put into effect what the state Court of Civil Appeals had said in July: The Open Meeting Act “was specifically and especially enacted for the benefit of the public,” meaning the “general public."
The court unanimously overturned a Washington County trial judge's ruling that plaintiffs suing under the Open Meeting Act must demonstrate they “were directly harmed by the wrongful actions of a government in violation of the OMA.”
The trial judge said Oklahomans had to rely upon their district attorneys to prosecute willful violations. But nearly all district attorneys are reluctant to file such charges.
Disagreeing with the trial judge, the Court of Civil Appeals said Oklahomans don’t have to rely upon district attorneys because the statute provides each of us with a “private right of action” to sue over violations.
The notion that Oklahoman couldn't sue to enforce the Open Meeting Act began with six Tulsa City Council members who had been sued over an alleged violation of the statute in 2010.
They noted that unlike the Open Records Act, the Open Meeting Act lacks a specific provision authorizing successful plaintiffs to recover reasonable attorney fees.
A member of the public may bring a civil suit for declarative relief of a violation of this act. If such suit is successful, the plaintiff shall be entitled to reasonable attorney fees.
Under that provision, anyone who believes a public body has violated the Open Meeting Act could file a civil lawsuit asking a judge to declare its action invalid without having to prove that he or she was individually injured by the alleged violation.
Committee members voting in favor of HB 2391 were Representatives David Brumbaugh, R-Broken Arrow; David Derby, R-Owasso; Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs; Dan Fisher; Hall; Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City; Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie; Mike Turner, R-Oklahoma City; and Ken Walker, R-Tulsa.
Murphey is committee chairman and a member of FOI Oklahoma's board of directors.
Private individuals shouldn’t have to foot the bill when it falls on them to prove government officials violated the law.
Let's hope the rest of the Legislature agrees.
Joey Senat, Ph.D. Associate Professor OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.