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April 11, 2000

Ms. Janice Marie Wilson
Associate General Counsel
Texas Department of Transportation
125 E. 11th Street
Austin, Texas 78701-2483

OR2000-1415

Dear Ms. Wilson:

You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under the Public Information Act, chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 135502..

The Texas Department of Transportation ("TxDOT") received a request for information relating to an automobile accident that occurred on IH-10 West. The requestor seeks reports of construction work performed on the frontage road of the highway for a specified time period, as well as investigation reports, photos, and/or videos of the accident at issue. You argue that the information is excepted from public disclosure pursuant to Government Code section 552.103. You have submitted a representative sample for our review.(1) We have considered the exception you claim and reviewed the submitted information.

Section 552.103(a), the "litigation exception," excepts from disclosure information relating to litigation to which the state is or may be a party. A governmental body has the burden of providing relevant facts and documents to show that the section 552.103(a) exception is applicable in a particular situation. The test for meeting this burden is a showing that (1) litigation is pending or reasonably anticipated, and (2) the information at issue is related to that litigation. University of Tex. Law Sch. v. Texas Legal Found., 958 S.W.2d 479 (Tex. App.--Austin, 1997, no pet.); Heard v. Houston Post Co., 684 S.W.2d 210 (Tex. App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1984, writ ref'd n.r.e.); Open Records Decision No. 551 at 4 (1990). The governmental body must meet both prongs of this test for information to be excepted under section 552.103(a).

Whether litigation is reasonably anticipated must be determined on a case-by-case basis. See Open Records Decision No. 452 at 4 (1986). To establish that litigation is reasonably anticipated, a governmental body must provide this office "concrete evidence showing that the claim that litigation may ensue is more than mere conjecture." Open Records Decision No. 452 at 4 (1986).

The fact that a governmental body received a claim letter that it represents to the attorney general to be in compliance with the notice requirements of the Texas Tort Claims Act ("TTCA"), Civil Practice and Remedies Code chapter 101, or applicable municipal ordinance, shows that litigation is reasonably anticipated. See Open Records Decision No. 638 at 4 (1996). If a governmental body does not make this representation, the claim letter is a factor the attorney general will consider in determining from the totality of the circumstances presented, whether the governmental body has established that litigation is reasonably anticipated.

You have submitted a formal notice of claim received by TxDOT. The notice of claim relates to an accident at the same location and time mentioned in the request. You state that the notice of claim complies with the notice requirements of the TTCA and alleges negligence on the part of TxDOT. Having reviewed the arguments and submitted information, we conclude that you have shown that litigation is reasonably anticipated under section 552.103 and that the information relates to the anticipated litigation. Therefore, you may withhold the requested information. We note, however, that once information has been obtained by all parties to the litigation through discovery or otherwise, no section 552.103(a) interest exists with respect to that information and such information must be disclosed. See Open Records Decision Nos. 349 (1982), 320 (1982). In addition, the applicability of section 552.103(a) ends once the litigation concludes. See Attorney General Opinion MW-575 (1982); Open Records Decision No. 350 (1982).

This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and to the facts as presented to us. Therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.

This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. 552.321(a).

If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. 552.3215(e).

If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408, 411 (Tex. App.-Austin 1992, no writ).

If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.

Sincerely,

Julie Reagan Watson
Assistant Attorney General
Open Records Division

JRW/cwt

Ref: ID#135502

Encl. Submitted documents

cc: Ms. Laura Redwine
523 Cactus Flower
San Antonio, Texas 78260
(w/o enclosures)


 

Footnotes

1. We assume that the "representative sample" of records submitted to this office is truly representative of the requested records as a whole. See Open Records Decision Nos. 499 (1988), 497 (1988). This open records letter does not reach, and therefore does not authorize the withholding of, any other requested records to the extent that those records contain substantially different types of information than that submitted to this office.
 

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