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Times News Publishing Co. v. Alamance-Burlington Board of Education

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 7, 2017

THE TIMES NEWS PUBLISHING COMPANY d/b/a Times-News, Plaintiff,
v.
THE ALAMANCE-BURLINGTON BOARD OF EDUCATION, d/b/a Alamance-Burlington Schools or The Alamance-Burlington School System; & DR. WILLIAM HARRISON, in his Capacity as Interim Superintendent of Alamance-Burlington School System, Defendants.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 19 October 2016.

         Appeal by Plaintiff from order entered 16 December 2015 by Judge Michael O'Foghludha in Alamance County No. 14-CVS-2033 Superior Court.

          The Bussian Law Firm, by John A. Bussian, for the Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Tharrington Smith, LLP, by Deborah R. Stagner and Neal A. Ramee, for the Defendants-Appellees.

          Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC, by C. Amanda Martin, for amicus curiae North Carolina Press Association.

          Christine T. Scheef and Allison B. Schafer, for amicus curiae N.C. School Boards Association.

          DILLON, Judge.

         The Times News Publishing Company ("Times News"), a publisher of a daily newspaper, originally brought this action seeking an order compelling the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education (the "Board") to provide unredacted minutes of a series of closed sessions of the Board. Times News appeals an order in which Judge O'Foghludha determined that only certain portions of the minutes were subject to disclosure. We affirm Judge O'Foghludha's order.

         I. Background

         In 2011, Dr. Lillie Cox was hired by the Board to serve as the superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System. In May 2014, during a closed session of the School Board, Dr. Cox resigned her position as superintendent. The Board agreed to pay her $200, 000 as a severance payment and $22, 000 in unused vacation pay.

         In October 2014, Times News submitted a written request to the Board seeking access to the minutes from certain closed sessions, including the May 2014 closed session, "pursuant to the Public Records Act." Times News specifically requested disclosure of unredacted minutes of "specially called meeting[s], including any closed sessions in or about May of 2014 relating to the continued employment of the then current Superintendent of Schools." In response, the Board produced forty-five (45) pages of heavily redacted minutes of closed sessions held between March and May 2014.

         Times News subsequently commenced this action, seeking a court order compelling the Board to produce the meeting minutes in their unredacted form, alleging that the Board had violated the Open Meetings Law and the Public Records Act by failing to produce the minutes. In response, the Board filed a motion to dismiss and an answer, claiming that the redacted portions of the meeting minutes consisted of confidential personnel information and information protected by attorney-client privilege.

         The trial court granted the Board's motion to dismiss, concluding that "the records sought by [Times News] [were] not public records subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act." Times News appealed the trial court's grant of the Board's motion to dismiss to this Court in December 2014.

         In Times News's first appeal, our Court reversed the trial court's ruling, holding that a trial court presented with an Open Meetings Law claim concerning closed meeting minutes "must review the minutes in camera-meaning in private, not in open court-and 'tailor the scope of statutory protection in each case' based on the contents of the minutes and their importance to the public." Times News Publ'g Co. v. Alamance-Burlington Bd. of Educ., __ N.C.App. __, ___, 77 ...


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