State of Rhode Island
OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
150 South Main Street- Providence, Rl 02903
(401) 274-4400 www.riag.ri.gov
Peter F. Neronha
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VIA EMAIL ONLY
January 9, 2023
Joseph Maruszczak, Ed.D.
Re: Neily v. Nuestro Mundo Public Charter School
Dear Ms. Neily and Mr. Maruszczak:
The investigation into the Access to Public Records Act (“APRA”) complaint filed by Ms. Nicole Neily (“Complainant”) against the Nuestro Mundo Public Charter School (“School”) is complete. For the reasons set forth herein, we find that the School violated the APRA.
The Complainant submitted a Complaint to this Office alleging that the School “violated Rhode Island’s APRA, as they have failed to respond to a records request sent on February 20, 2022.” Appended to the Complaint was the Complainant’s initial request to the School, which sought a School employee’s “emails, text messages, and instant messages between September 1, 2021 and February 19, 2022,” which contained a number of identified terms or four specified email addresses.
Mr. Joseph Maruszczak responded to the Complaint on behalf of the School on April 8, 2022. The School does not challenge that it is a public body subject to the APRA. The School’s Response, addressed to the Complainant, stated “[p]er your original request, attached as a zip file are emails from the period of September 1, 2021 to February 19, 2022 that contain some of the requested terms.” The School then noted that it did not have responsive records for “the following requested terms: ‘Domestic terrorism’ ‘Patriot Act’ ‘Interstate Commerce’ ‘Department of Justice’ ‘Secret Service’ ‘Postal Investigation Service’ ‘Vanita Gupta’ ‘Catherine Lhamon’ [and] ‘Parents Defending Education’ or ‘PDE.’” The School had no responsive records for the four email addresses identified in the Complainant’s initial request.
The Complainant did not submit a Rebuttal.
When we examine an APRA complaint, our authority is to determine whether a violation of the APRA has occurred. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8. In doing so, we must begin with the plain language of the APRA and relevant caselaw interpreting this statute.
Pursuant to the APRA, a public body has ten (10) business days to respond in some capacity to a records request, whether by producing responsive documents, denying the request with reason(s), or extending the period necessary to comply. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 38-2-3(e), 38-2-7. A public body may extend the time to respond to an APRA request by an additional twenty (20) business days “if it can demonstrate that the voluminous nature of the request, the number of requests for records pending, or the difficulty in searching for and retrieving or copying the requested records, is such that additional time is necessary to avoid imposing an undue burden on the public body.” Id.
Here, it is undisputed that Complainant made an APRA request on February 20, 2022. It is also undisputed that the School failed to respond to the Complainant’s request until April 8, 2022, when it responded to the APRA Complaint submitted to this Office. The School did not dispute that its response was untimely, nor did it contend that it failed to receive the initial APRA request or that Complainant did not comply with its procedures for submitting APRA requests. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-3(d) (requiring public bodies to establish written procedures regarding access to public records). Accordingly, we conclude that the School violated the APRA when it failed to respond to Complainant’s request within the statutory time period. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-7.
Upon a finding of an APRA violation, the Attorney General may file a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of the Complainant requesting “injunctive or declaratory relief.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). A court “shall impose a civil fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000) against a public body. . . found to have committed a knowing and willful violation of this chapter, and a civil fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) against a public body found to have recklessly violated this chapter.” See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-9(d).
We conclude that insufficient evidence exists to find a willful and knowing, or alternatively reckless, violation. Our conclusion is supported by the fact that the School does not have any recent, similar violations. Nonetheless, this finding serves as notice that the conduct discussed herein violates the APRA and may serve as evidence of a willful and knowing, or reckless, violation in any similar future situation.
Although the Attorney General will not file suit in this matter, nothing within the APRA prohibits an individual from instituting an action for injunctive or declaratory relief in Superior Court. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 38-2-8(b). Please be advised that we are closing this file as of the date of this letter.
We thank you for your interest in keeping government open and accountable to the public.
PETER F. NERONHA
/s/ Adam D. Roach
Adam D. Roach
Special Assistant Attorney General