Worcester Superior Court Judge Janet Kenton-Walker ruled on Wednesday, January 26, 2022, that the City of Worcester acted in bad faith by illegally withholding records about alleged police misconduct from the Telegram & Gazette in 2019. She ordered the city to pay $5,000 in punitive damages–the first punitive penalty ever assessed under a 2016 legislative reform to the Public Records Law–because the city “had no legal justification for its position.”
In an article in the Telegram & Gazette about the decision, Prince Lobel Partner Jeff Pyle, who represented the newspaper, was quoted: “Hopefully this ruling will cause other public bodies to think twice before denying public records based on weak and strained legal arguments.”
The case involved a request by Telegram & Gazette reporter Brad Petrishen for police internal affairs records. The city argued that the records could be shielded from public view because they were “personnel” records and the officers were defendants in pending civil rights lawsuits. Judge Kenton-Walker noted that city’s position was contradicted by a 2003 Massachusetts Appeals Court decision that held it would be “odd, indeed, to shield from the light of public scrutiny as ‘personnel [file] or information … the workings and determinations of a process whose quintessential purpose is to inspire public confidence.”
Telegram & Gazette Executive Editor Dave Nordman on Friday called the ruling a “big win for democracy,” and thanked Pyle, who he called “one of the best First Amendment lawyers in the business,” for his support.
Read the memorandum of Decision and Order here.