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Judge awards Story fees in FOIA lawsuit

A Suffolk Circuit Court judge has awarded School Board member Sherri Story all attorney’s fees and other costs associated with her Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the board and the majority of its members.

Judge Carl Eason Jr., in a Aug. 10 hearing, ordered the board to pay Story just over $25,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs resulting from the case — $21,950 specifically for attorney’s fees and another $3,056.42 in other costs, including filing fees, service fees and court reporter fees.

It was everything Story had requested, according to her attorney, Kevin Martingayle.

“The court did not find every instance of an alleged FOIA violation to constitute a violation,” Martingayle said. “So the court did not agree with Ms. Story that everything she thought to be a violation was a violation. However, all the court needed to do is to declare that there was one violation in order to trigger relief. And the court actually found approximately 25 instances of violations.”

Eason, at the end of a four-day trial last month, ruled that the board and the majority of its members violated FOIA with regard to meeting notices, vague closed meeting notices and certifications of closed meetings.

He ruled that the board — including Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum, Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, Lorita Mayo, Tyron Riddick and Karen Jenkins, who were all named as defendants in the lawsuit — did not provide proper notice of public meetings and ruled that the motions going into closed meetings were too vague and that certifications of closed meetings were “not sufficient.”

Story, who had been publicly censured last month by the board for violations of its norms and protocols, brought the lawsuit against the rest of the board after having alleged numerous violations of the act during her time on the board, which began in January 2019. Member David Mitnick was also named in Story’s suit, but only as a nominal defendant entitled to notice.

Eason found that the board violated FOIA in the following ways:

  • The Feb. 13, 2019 meeting of the City Liaison Committee, in which Byrum and Brooks-Buck took part, was a public meeting requiring public notice, which was not given by the board.
  • The June 11, 2020 motion for closed meeting with regard to “the discussion of the performance of a specific public officer,” did not provide the required specificity.
  • Many motions for closed meetings on Oct. 10, 2019, Nov. 14, 2019, Dec. 12, 2019, Jan. 9, 2020, Feb. 26, 2020 and April 9, 2020 did not provide the required specificity under FOIA.
  • That the requirement of FOIA to have certifications of closed meetings read aloud at the public meeting and the board having referred to the certification by title only from Jan. 10, 2019 until June 11, 2020 was in violation of the act, though the certifications had the required language.

Martingayle termed the violations with regard to the certifications of closed meetings “habitual,” having taken place for at least the entirety of Story’s tenure on the board.

“They’ve consistently tried to claim that Ms. Story wasn’t harmed in any way by what was occurring,” Martingayle said. “And that’s not true. Ms. Story ran on a platform of transparency. She ran for office with the idea that she was going to make the business of the school system more well-known to the public, and the reward for her efforts has been a lot of grief and criticism directed at her by the majority of the school board members who wanted to carry on doing business the old fashioned way.”

Eason found that the board not allowing remote attendance in closed meetings was not a FOIA violation. He also ruled that polling with regard to calling an emergency meeting related to a March 1, 2020 email, Story’s request for an Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act report related to a March 10, 2020 email and requests for remote attendance for closed meetings related to an April 6, 2020 email did not represent a secret vote, and therefore, was not a FOIA violation. The judge also said that discussions in closed meetings regarding transgender guidelines and financial information as part of the personnel reports “did not stray from what the closed motion allows or what the statute allows to have discussed in those closed meetings.”

According to an order filed Friday in Suffolk Circuit Court, Byrum, Brooks-Buck, Jenkins, Mayo and Riddick have read the FOIA in its entirety, as the court ordered them to do within two weeks of the ruling. They have also completed FOIA training as the court ordered.

Ann Sullivan, the board’s attorney, could not be reached for comment Tuesday by press time.

“She proved most of the FOIA violations that she thought to exist,” Martingayle said of Story. “She got 100% of the mandamus relief that she requested and she got 100% of the attorney’s fees and costs that she incurred. That’s a huge victory. It takes one person with bravery and courage to hold the government accountable sometimes. Ms. Story is that person in this instance. She did what needed to be done.”