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Immanuel v. Comptroller of Maryland

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 12, 2016

HENRY IMMANUEL
v.
COMPTROLLER OF MARYLAND

          Argued: May 9, 2016

         Circuit Court for Wicomico County Case No. 22-C-12-000750

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, Watts, Battaglia, Lynne A. (Retired, Specially Assigned) Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned), Wilner Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          Raker, J

          We issued a writ of certiorari in this case to decide primarily whether the Maryland Public Information Act and the Uniform Disposition of Abandoned Property Act require the Comptroller of Maryland to withhold certain information about accounts held in the database of abandoned property accounts.

         The petition for certiorari presented the following questions:

"1. Does the prohibition against providing financial information in response to Public Information Act requests prohibit disclosure of information concerning comparative values when interpreted in light of the legislative scheme and purpose of the Abandoned Property Act?
2.Was it proper for the Court of Special Appeals to affirm the modifications of Petitioner's Public Information Act request, as to number and age of accounts, and thus interfere with Petitioner's ability to profit from his work?
3.Was it proper for the Court of Special Appeals to affirm the Circuit Court's vacating its earlier sealing of the case to protect Petitioner's trade secret?"

         We shall hold that the Maryland Public Information Act prohibits disclosure of information that reveals the comparative value of abandoned property accounts, and shall affirm. Because we affirm, the issue of sealing the case is moot.

         I.

         This case has a long history in the courts and administrative agencies in Maryland. The case centers around petitioner's November 3, 2011 written request for information under the Maryland Public Information Act (hereinafter "MPIA"), Maryland Code (2014), § 4-101 et seq. of the General Provisions Article ("GP"), [1] related to the value of unclaimed property accounts in the custody of the Comptroller of Maryland. Petitioner requested a list of the names and addresses of individuals with the 5, 000 largest accounts of unclaimed property, ordered from the largest value to the smallest. Based upon the Comptroller's interpretation of the statute that the requested information was prohibited under the MPIA, the Comptroller denied the request on the grounds that the records contained "information about the finances of an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities, or creditworthiness." GP § 4-336(b).

         Petitioner filed a petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Wicomico County. He filed a motion to seal the case record on the grounds that the record contained his trade secret (his technique for soliciting the information in question in this case), which the Circuit Court granted. The Circuit Court ordered the Comptroller to disclose the requested records in value order as petitioner requested, and the Comptroller appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed in part, and reversed in part. Comptroller of Treasury v. Immanuel, 216 Md.App. 259, 85 A.3d 878 (2014) (Immanuel I). The Court of Special Appeals held that Mr. Immanuel was entitled to a list of claims, but not sorted by value. Id. at 274, 85 A.3d at 887. The court remanded the case to the Circuit Court, "for the limited purpose of allowing the circuit court to determine the precise boundaries of the production the Comptroller must make to Mr. Immanuel, " concluding that "Mr. Immanuel should emerge on remand with a list of claims that tracks the Comptroller's disclosure obligations under the Abandoned Property Act, but that is not sorted by dollar value." Id. at 275, 85 A.3d at 888.

         On remand, the Circuit Court ordered petitioner to submit a modified MPIA request, limited to accounts received by the Comptroller within 365 days with a value of $100 or greater, without any sorting by value or other financial information. Upon the Comptroller's request, the Circuit Court vacated its order to seal the case. Mr. Immanuel appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court, holding that the Circuit Court did not err or abuse the discretion delegated to it, as "its order properly tracks the Comptroller's disclosure obligations under the Abandoned Property Act, and thus complies with our instructions to that court." Immanuel v. Comptroller of Treasury, 225 Md.App. 581, 594, 126 A.3d 196, 203 (2015) (Immanuel II). The court agreed with the Circuit Court that extracting "a list of any specific number of claims [i.e. extracting the most valuable 5, 000 accounts] ranked or identified by value is barred from disclosure by the MPIA, as limited by the Abandoned Property Act, because releasing such information would reveal the relative value of such claims in comparison with other claims in the Comptroller's possession, which would constitute disclosure of individual financial information." Id. at 595, 126 A.3d at 204.

         We granted a writ of certiorari to consider the issues presented. Immanuel v. Comptroller of Maryland, 446 Md. 218, 130 A.3d 507 (2016).

         II.

         The MPIA gives the public the right to broad disclosure of government or public documents with exemptions for specific kinds of information. GP § 4-101, et seq. The Act describes the general right to information as follows:

"(a) All persons are entitled to have access to information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees.
(b) To carry out the right set forth in subsection (a) of this section, unless an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a person in interest would result, this title shall be construed in favor of allowing inspection of a public record, with the least cost and least delay to the person or governmental unit that requests the inspection."

GP § 4-103. We construe the MPIA liberally to effectuate the Act's broad remedial purpose. A.S. Abell Pub. Co. v. Mezzanote, 297 Md. 26, 32, 464 A.2d 1068, 1071 (1983). The MPIA defines "public record" as "the original or any copy of any documentary material that: (I) is made by a unit or an instrumentality of the State or of a political subdivision or received by the unit or instrumentality in connection with the transaction of public business . . . ." GP § 4-101(j)(1).

         The State must disclose certain records unless the requested records are within the scope of a statutory exemption. Faulk v. State's Att'y for Harford Cty., 299 Md. 493, 506-07, 474 A.2d 880, 887 (1984). Section 4-103(b) of the MPIA provides that records should be withheld if "an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of a person in interest would result . . . ." The MPIA is clear that "[u]nless otherwise provided by law, a custodian shall deny inspection of a public record, as provided in this part." GP § 4-304. Sections 4-328-342 of the MPIA sets out required denials for specific information-exemptions to the general policy of disclosure of public records. The exemptions are categories of documents and information "that the statute mandatorily instructs a custodian to deny, or permit, inspection." Univ. Sys. of Maryland v. Baltimore Sun Co., 381 Md. 79, 88, 847 A.2d 427, 432 (2004). Importantly, the express exemptions set out in the statute, "are intended to address the reasonable expectation of privacy that a person in interest has in certain types of records identified by the Legislature." Id. at 99-100, 847 A.2d at 439. The prohibition against disclosing financial information is codified in GP § 4-336, which reads as follows:

"(a) This section does not apply to the salary of a public employee.
(b)Subject to subsection (c) of this section, a custodian shall deny inspection of the part of a public record that contains information about the finances of an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities, or creditworthiness.
(c)A custodian shall allow inspection by the person in interest."

         The Uniform Disposition of Abandoned Property Act (hereinafter "Abandoned Property Act"), Maryland Code (1990), § 17-301, et. seq. of the Commercial Law Article ("CL"), provides that "[e]very person holding funds or other tangible or intangible property presumed abandoned under this subtitle shall report to the Administrator with respect to the property as provided in this section." CL § 17-310. In Maryland, "abandoned property" is defined as tangible and intangible personal property considered abandoned under the title. CL § 17-101(b)(1). The Comptroller is the Administrator under the Abandoned Property Act. CL § 17-101(c). After reporting the property to the Comptroller, the property holder must then deliver the abandoned property to the Comptroller, CL § 17-312, who acts as custodian for the owner. CL § 17-313. The Abandoned Property Unit of the ...


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