Press release from the Human Rights Defense Center; March 2, 2013:
Nashville, TN – On February 28, the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued its second ruling in a long-running lawsuit filed under the state’s Public Records Act against Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit private prison company. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling of the lower court, holding that CCA must produce documents that it had refused to disclose, as well as pay attorney fees and costs in the case.
The suit was filed by Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), a nonprofit monthly publication that reports on criminal justice-related issues. In 2007, CCA denied Friedmann’s request for records related to litigation filed against CCA and for reports or audits that found contract violations by the company, among other documents. The Chancery Court ruled in Friedmann’s favor, finding that CCA was the functional equivalent of a government agency, and ordered CCA to produce the requested records.
CCA appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed in September 2009, noting, “With all due respect to CCA, this Court is at a loss as to how operating a prison could be considered anything less than a governmental function.”
Following remand, CCA produced a number of the requested records, including hundreds of pages from reports and audits in which CCA had been found in violation of or non-compliance with its contractual obligations to operate prisons and jails in Tennessee. However, CCA refused to produce copies of settlement agreements, verdicts or releases in cases where the company had paid damages or other monetary amounts to resolve lawsuits or claims. CCA also refused to release database printouts listing such settlements.
On December 1, 2011, Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled against CCA, holding that as the functional equivalent of a government agency it could not keep secret its settlement documents, nor its database printouts listing settlements involving the company. The court ordered CCA to pay $28,367.50 in Friedmann’s attorney fees, and the company again appealed.
“CCA has fought tooth-and-nail against disclosing these records for more than four years,” Friedmann said at the time. “This would not have occurred with a government agency, and evidences a significant problem with prison privatization: private prison companies like CCA prefer to operate in secret, with little transparency, and are not accountable to the public.”
On February 28, 2013, the Court of Appeals again ruled against CCA in the company’s second appeal. The appellate court wrote that it “respectfully disagree[d] with CCA’s conclusion” that the company did not have to produce its settlement-related records because such records were not part of its official business related to running prisons and jails. According to the appellate court, “settlement agreements are considered public records under the Public Records Act. Thus, as the functional equivalent of a government agency, CCA was required to turn over settlement agreements related to the operation of the correctional facilities unless otherwise provided by state law.” The Court noted that “the vast majority of case law clearly flies in the face of [CCA’s] interpretation.”
Further, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s award of $28,367.50 in attorney fees against CCA, finding that Chancellor Bonnyman had properly found that “CCA acted in bad faith in its refusal to disclose the settlement agreements.” The appellate court also ordered CCA to pay Friedmann’s attorney fees incurred in the appeal, and assessed costs against the company. The case was remanded for determination of the total amount of fees that CCA must pay. CCA was represented by Joseph F. Welborn III and Jason W. Callen.
“Perhaps now, after almost five years of litigation, CCA will finally produce the records it should have produced all along pursuant to the state’s public records law,” Friedmann stated. “CCA officials apparently think they are above the law even though their company performs the governmental function of running prisons and jails, and is paid with public taxpayer funds. CCA is one of the least transparent companies when it comes to public accountability, which is very disturbing given that it incarcerates people for the purpose of generating profit.”
The case is Friedmann v. CCA, Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville, No. M2012-00212- COA-R3-CV. Friedmann was represented on appeal by Memphis attorney Andrew Clarke.