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Dashiell v. Maryland State Police Department

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

October 8, 2014

TELETA S. DASHIELL
v.
MARYLAND STATE POLICE DEPARTMENT

Woodward, Hotten, Sharer, J. Frederick (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

WOODWARD, J.

The instant appeal arises from an order granting summary judgment by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Appellant, Teleta S. Dashiell, filed a declaratory judgment action under the Maryland Public Information Act ("MPIA" or "the Act"), seeking to establish that certain internal affairs records prepared and stored by appellee, the Maryland State Police (the "MSP"), were not exempt from disclosure.

On November 5, 2009, appellant filed a complaint with the MSP against Sergeant John Maiello, alleging that Sergeant Maiello had made racially derogatory remarks while leaving a message on her voicemail two days earlier. Following an internal affairs investigation, appellant was notified on February 17, 2010, that her allegations were "confirmed" and that "appropriate disciplinary action was taken against Sergeant Maiello and documented in his personnel file."

After her subsequent MPIA request was denied by the MSP, appellant filed her declaratory judgment action in the circuit court. On June 24, 2011, following a motions hearing, the court ruled that all of the records sought by appellant were exempt from disclosure as "personnel records" under Section 10-616(i) of the Act. This appeal followed.

On appeal, appellant raises three questions, which we have rephrased:

1. Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment in favor of the MSP after finding that the documents sought by appellant under the Maryland Public Information Act were exempt from disclosure?
2. Did the trial court err by not ordering the MSP to produce those portions of the withheld documents that are "reasonably severable"?
3. Did the trial court err by allowing MSP to withhold documents under the Maryland Public Information Act without first conducting an independent review of, or permitting discovery of, the documents?

For the reasons set forth below, we will vacate the judgment of the circuit court and remand this case to that court for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

On November 3, 2009, during the investigation of a case to which he was assigned, Sergeant Maiello made a telephone call to appellant, who was a potential witness. Unable to reach her, Sergeant Maiello left a voicemail message on appellant's telephone, asking her to call him back. Without realizing that he had not hung up the phone, Sergeant Maiello made racially disparaging remarks about appellant that were recorded on her voicemail system.[1] After listening to the voicemail, appellant contacted the Princess Anne police barracks and, subsequently, came in to give a statement and file a complaint against Sergeant Maiello.

On February 17, 2010, appellant received correspondence from Captain Kristina Nelson of the Criminal Investigation Division, which explained that, following an internal investigation, appellant's complaint had been "sustained" and that "appropriate disciplinary action was taken against Sergeant Maiello and documented in his personnel file." Approximately one month later, on March 2, 2010, appellant, assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland ("ACLU"), filed a request for disclosure of records under the MPIA. Md. Code (1984, 2009 Repl. Vol.), §§ 10-611 to -630 of the State Government Article ("SG"). In the records request, appellant sought

[t]he internal investigation conducted by the Maryland State Police pursuant to the complaint lodged against Sergeant John Maiello by [appellant] on November 5, 2009, and closed the second week of February, 2010, relating to the offensive voicemail message left on [appellant's] cell phone on November 3, 2009, including, but not limited to:
a. Any documents, including video and/or audio recordings, obtained during the investigation;
b. Any documents, including video and/or audio recordings, created during the investigation;
c. Incident reports;
d. Witness statements;
e. Charging documents;
f. Complaint control card;
g. Results of internal investigation; and h. Results of the review of findings of the internal investigation.

On April 15, 2010, Internal Affairs Section Commander John Greene denied appellant's request in its entirety. In a response letter to the ACLU, Commander Greene explained:

MSP is denying [the] request for records for the following reasons:

• The Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights (LEOBR) prohibits disclosure of internal investigation reports outside the context of that law.
• Records of an individual employee's conduct related to a specific incident are personnel records and are not disclosable under the [MPIA].
• The records you requested are intra-agency memoranda and letters and it would not be in the public interest to inhibit candor in the decision making process.
• The records you requested are investigatory records and it would not be in the public interest to inhibit the candor of witnesses or to invade the personal privacy of individuals involved in the investigation.

Appellant disputed the MSP's decision to withhold the documents in their entirety, arguing in a June 7, 2010 letter that she was "entitled to review" the investigative file generated by her complaint. Appellant then requested that the MSP be required "to provide any reasonably 'severable portion' of the records sought." Appellant also "request[ed] a detailed index of the investigative file that includes a summary of each document, and states the particular exemption that the MSP claims for each document" within thirty days of the letter. The MSP denied this request, stating that "the nature of these records and the various bases upon which [the] MSP was compelled to deny the request makes it clear that no portion of the requested record is reasonably severable, " and that the MSP was not required to provide a detailed index because in its April 15 response, the MSP "sufficiently described the contents of the records to justify denial of access to the records without the need" for any such index.

In the face of these denied requests, on October 27, 2010, appellant filed a complaint in the circuit court seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that the MSP violated the MPIA, (2) an order permitting her to inspect and copy the records she sought, and (3) an award of attorney's fees and costs. Before the beginning of discovery, the MSP moved to dismiss, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The circuit court held a hearing on June 24, 2011, at the conclusion of which the court orally granted the MSP's motion for summary judgment.

The circuit court explained its ruling as follows:
This is a case where [appellant] filed suit against [the MSP] alleging violation of the Maryland Public Information Act. Suit was filed on October 27, 2010. Prior to filing suit, [appellant] inquired of [the MSP] as to what actions they had taken regarding this ...

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