Public Interest Group Wins Legal Fees in Transparency Lawsuit

(Photo: David Guo/Flickr; Illustration by POGO)

In a landmark decision, a California court recently awarded thousands of dollars in legal expenses to a public interest organization that successfully fought a government contractor’s attempt to block the release of public records.

As we reported last fall, Jobs to Move America (JMA)—a coalition of community, civil rights, and labor groups—filed a public records request for documents that would show whether a Los Angeles County contractor named New Flyer was keeping its promise to create a certain number of well-paying jobs. In what is called a “reverse-Freedom of Information Act [FOIA]” lawsuit, New Flyer sought an injunction from the Los Angeles County Superior Court to block the county from releasing this information, claiming it was a protected trade secret. The court denied the injunction, ruling the contractor’s showing of potential competitive harm from disclosure was “not particularly strong” and that applying the trade secret privilege would “work injustice.” (The Project On Government Oversight and other public interest groups filed an amicus curiae brief in support of JMA.)

Last month, the court went a step further and ordered New Flyer to pay JMA more than $170,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. The court justified its decision on the basis that JMA’s intervention in the case “conferred a significant benefit on the general public because it ensured transparency in an important aspect of a $500 million public contract.”

In a press statement, JMA hailed the decision as “the first of its kind” in a California reverse-FOIA case, and declared that “companies will think twice before attempting to hide information from the public.” The organization says it is now reviewing the documents to confirm whether New Flyer complied with job creation commitments in its contract.

This case is a reminder that an attack on governmental transparency anywhere—whether at the federal, state, or local level—is a threat to transparency everywhere. Unfortunately, reverse-FOIA lawsuits are becoming more common at a time when governments are ceding more and more public functions to private companies. And when deals with companies require the government to remain neutral in FOIA disputes (as is what happened in the New Flyer case), we must rely on groups like JMA to pursue costly litigation in order to pry loose information the public has the right to see.