Is a Public Records Request Scam Hurting Your Private Company?
Are you a private business owner who occasionally does work for government agencies? You should be aware of an ongoing lawsuit scam that involves Florida laws on public records. Chapter 119, Florida statutes is Florida’s Public Records Act. It mandates that government agencies provide access to records upon request. However, does this same statute apply to private businesses or government contractors that are doing work for government agencies? Probably, but only in regards to that aspect of the work that is being done for a government agency. In other words, just because a company does work for a Florida government agency, doesn’t necessarily mean that all of its books and records are open to public inspection.
Business owners should be aware that Chapter 119 can be used as the basis for suing them, for their staff or employees failing to properly respond to a public records request as it pertains to the business that involves the government. If your business has a contract with a government agency, then a chapter 119 public records request might properly be used by somebody to gain access to records pertaining to that work.
The ongoing scam is that there are several businesses in Florida that seem to be looking for reasons to file lawsuits and claim attorney’s fees under these confusing laws. An example of this scam was recently uncovered by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a legitimate nonprofit news organization that does research into various matters. They found that just a few persons and/or organizations have filed over 140 lawsuits in 27 counties trying to apply Chapter 119 to private businesses and to then seek attorney’s fees when the deminimus records request was finally responded to.
If you are a business owner who works for any government entity, you should advise your staff to be on the lookout for innocuous letters requesting information about the government entity project. You should also advise your staff to be on the lookout for people walking into your offices and requesting those records. Verbal requests for public records can be just as effective as written ones.
What happens when you get one of these requests?
Most of the time, the request is very innocuous and is for fairly simple documentation. A good response would be to advise the requesting person that the records will be made available within a short period of time. Then quickly find yourself an attorney who has experience in chapter 119 laws. That attorney can then review the request and make a determination as to whether it is for purposes of setting your business up for attorney’s fees.
There is a bill pending in the Florida legislature to amend chapter 119, which will protect the right of citizens to legitimate access to public records yet also protect the businesses and contractors that do work with the government. The proposed legislation requires written notice by certified mail at least five days before the requested date to review the records. Assuming the Florida legislature approves this amendment, the problem should go away within the next nine months or so. In the meantime, business owners and government contractors should be aware of this problem.
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