Nat’l Educ. Ass’n of R.I. v. S. Kingstown Sch. Comm.

Full title: NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION OF RHODE ISLAND AND NATIONAL EDUCATION…

Court: Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

Date published: Jun 9, 2022

Facts

In April 2021, Solas sent an e-mail to the principal of a South Kingstown public school requesting records and information regarding the teaching of critical race theory and other related concepts within the South Kingstown school’s curriculum because her child was a prospective kindergartener in the South Kingstown public school system. (Verified Compl. ¶ 13); see Verified Compl., App. A.; see also Parents’ Mot. for Summ. J. 3. Upon receipt of Solas’ request, the principal recommended to Solas that she file a request for public records pursuant to the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 2 of title 38 (APRA). (Verified Compl. ¶ 14.) Within the next approximate two-month period, Solas filed about 200 APRA requests. (Verified Compl. ¶ 15, App. B.) Defendant South Kingstown School Department (School Department) considered filing a lawsuit to obtain relief from the numerous requests by Solas. (Verified Compl. ¶ 16.) Solas’ records requests and the School Department’s response prompted local and national media attention. Id. ¶ 17. The media attention brought forth additional APRA requests from other individuals. (Verified Compl. ¶ 19, App. B.) Approximately 300 APRA requests were filed from April 2021 to July 2021, and roughly 100 requests remained outstanding as of July 14, 2021, shortly before the filing of the instant complaint. (Pls.’ Mem. Obj. Ex. B, Barden Aff. ¶ 25.)

Solas’ records request sought several categories of materials, including documents related to labor relations and labor officials. (Verified Compl. ¶¶ 22, 24, 25.) Her requests further sought records relating to “teacher discipline and performance,” “teacher e-mails,” and “e-mails of  various administrators who are not members of [NEARI or NEASK],” which Plaintiffs argued may contain personally identifiable information and/or constitute an invasion of personal privacy. Id. ¶¶ 26, 29, 33-45.

In response to a July 13, 2021 e-mail sent by Plaintiffs’ counsel inquiring whether any of the APRA requests implicated the privacy rights of any members of NEARI or NEASK, the South Kingstown School Committee (School Committee) instructed Plaintiffs’ counsel that they had to submit their own APRA request to obtain the list of outstanding APRA requests and responses. (Pls.’ Mem. Obj. 5.) Plaintiffs were concerned that of the one hundred outstanding APRA requests, the documents requested included information that did not constitute a “public record” under APRA.” (Verified Comp. ¶ 22; Pls.’ Mem. Obj. 6-9.).

On August 2, 2021, the Plaintiffs filed a Verified Complaint requesting a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the Defendants, the School Committee and School Department (the School Committee and School Department will be referred to collectively as the School Defendants), and the Parents. See Verified Compl.

Issue

Decision

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, this Court finds a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the Parents’ records requests constitute a sham pursuant to § 9-33-2(a)(1)-(2). Because the Court finds that some of the Parents’ APRA requests could be deemed objectively baseless, and because the Court cannot rule at the summary judgment stage on whether the requests were subjectively baseless, the Parents have failed to establish the final element to successfully assert Anti-SLAPP immunity.

This Court DENIES the Parents’ Motion for Summary Judgment because the Plaintiffs had standing to bring a Declaratory Judgment Action and because there are genuine issues of material fact as to the Parents’ assertion of Anti-SLAPP immunity.

The parties shall confer on a form of order.

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