Judge rules UM System violated Sunshine Law in animal rights group's suit

8 months 2 days 14 hours ago Friday, November 08 2019 Nov 8, 2019 Friday, November 08, 2019 7:52:27 PM CST November 08, 2019 in News
By: Columbia Missourian Staff

COLUMBIA - MU knowingly violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by overestimating the cost of providing records to an animal rights group, a Boone County Judge ruled Friday.

After it was told a records request would cost over $82,000, Animal Rescue, Media & Education, also known as the Beagle Freedom Project, sued the university and the UM System records custodian, Paula Barrett, in May 2016. The group wanted documents for 179 dogs and cats used in MU research, experiments and testing.

"After hearing the evidence, the Court finds that there is nothing so complex, unique or burdensome about the information sought that would require a requestor to pay in excess of $450 just to get the records for a single dog or cat," Boone County Judge Jeff Harris wrote in his ruling.

To retrieve the records, MU assumed it would use well-paid veterinarians or PhDs who earned annual salaries ranging from $109,000 to $211,000, Harris wrote. In some cases, the rate for retrieving the records was over $100 an hour.

This decision was not justified and increased costs unnecessarily, Harris wrote. This Sunshine Law requires that public agencies use employees who can gather records at the lowest cost. 

Harris also wrote that assuming it would take over 500 hours to gather the records was unreasonable.

"There was no evidence adduced at trial to suggest that it was reasonable for a principal investigator to take as long as five hours to find the records for a single dog or cat," he wrote.

In June, Barrett sent a letter to the Beagle Freedom Project with a lower bill of $8,950, more than three years after the lawsuit was filed. The suit went to trial in July.

MU issued a statement Friday in response to the ruling:

"The University of Missouri is committed to being transparent and in compliance of the law. We respond to nearly 700 Sunshine requests per year and devote significant resources to live up to the requirements of the Sunshine Law. We respectfully disagree that the University violated those requirements."

The statement also said the university was reviewing the decision and would determine its options.

The lawsuit stemmed from a campaign launched by the Beagle Freedom Project in March 2015 that aimed to identify dogs and cats that were used in research. Labelled an "Identity Campaign," it was intended to locate animals for potential adoption and raise public awareness about their use in research, according to previous Missourian reporting.

As part of the campaign, the project filed similar open records requests at multiple public universities. Most cooperated in responding to the requests, and some provided records at little or no cost, Harris wrote in his ruling.

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