The Florida First District recently rendered Mobley v. Fussell, 1D19-4286, regarding the intriguing topic of whether a court clerk might charge someone for copies of public records. Please do not tune out just yet, as the analysis delves far deeper than the seeming banality of copy costs, and is actually a somewhat intriguing and educational expose of the process of statutory analysis.
As an aside, this matter came to the Court as a "mandamus petition." Mandamus is one of the extraordinary writs that are exceptions to the general rule that appellate courts address allegations of error most often following the rendition of a final adjudication by a trial court. These have been discussed in this blog before, see A Law Student and a Series of Dumb Mistakes (2018). Mandamus is a vehicle through which one asks the appellate court to tell the trial court or other official to do something particular.
In this instance, the Mandamus was filed by a pro se person (acting without an attorney), Vincent Mobley. That is not uncommon in the realm of litigation. What some might find interesting in that regard, however, is that this individual pursued his complaint without counsel, against the state, and prevailed. The First District granted the Writ of Mandamus and Mr. Mobley will be provided copies of certain documents free of charge. It is common to hear that people cannot hope to prevail without counsel in today's world of legal intricacies, but Mr. Mobley proved them wrong.
The process began when he sought those records from the Duval County Clerk of Courts. The documents he wanted were "of his (previous) judgement and sentence." The Clerk received his request and conditioned fulfillment upon his payment of copy costs. That is not uncommon in the world of litigation. There are a variety of sources that maintain records one might wish to review (medical facilities, doctors, government, etc.) and copying requires human time to research, locate, retrieve, duplicate, and deliver. Even in a digital paradigm, there can be significant work involved. In HB1147 and the Electronic Medical Record, the efficiencies of a digital world were discussed. Another point of view was later added to that post for consideration.
In Mobley, the Court brings focus to the method for interpreting statutes, and to the potential for conflict among the various (there are 5) Florida District Courts.
The statute at issue in Mobley has nothing to do with workers' compensation. But, all of workers' compensation in Florida is statutory, and thus statutory interpretation is integral to it. Further, Mobley provides a concise explanation. The statute interpreted is section 940.04, Florida Statutes (2019). It provides for free copies of criminal records for "any applicant for executive clemency . . . required to supply a certified copy of the applicant's information, indictment, judgment, or sentence." The statute specifically says that when such document(s) is needed by an applicant for this specific relief, the Clerk of Court is to provide it "to the applicant free of charge and without delay." Here, the legislature has provided a specific exception for a particular population of customers.
The Court explained that there is a "trigger" for the Clerk's responsibility, that is that "the requesting party must be 'an applicant for executive clemency' and the requested copies must be for records 'required' for the clemency application." Mr. Mobley made such a request and was declined.
The Court concluded that which records are required for executive clemency are delineated in section 940.03, Florida Statutes (2019). This includes an application and "may require . . . a certified copy of the applicant's indictment or information, the judgment adjudicating the applicant to be guilty, and the sentence, if sentence has been imposed . . . ." Thus, by statute, a "may," not a "shall." Therefore, the Court turned next to Florida Rule of Executive Clemency 6(B), and concluded that rule formalizes the this and requires ("shall") attachment of "a certified copy of the charging instrument. . . and a certified copy of the judgment and sentence for each felony conviction, or misdemeanor conviction if seeking a pardon for a misdemeanor." The rule essentially builds a requirement ("shall") onto the statutory foundation that allows it ("may").
Thus, the Court concluded, "the plain language of the clemency rule and sections 940.03 and 940.04" renders those document copies “required.” Therefore, the copies should seemingly be provided by the Clerk without charge. However, the Court concluded that the "thornier" issue is what constitutes "'an applicant for executive clemency." That is, "must a person have already completed the clemency application?" And, if so, "may the clerk request a copy of the application (as proof) before producing the requested records?" Or, may someone merely allege they are in the midst of such an application?
The Court noted that it had "previously . . . resolved the question in an unelaborated decision." (Citation omitted). It is not uncommon for appellate courts to effect an outcome in a case without an extensive written opinion and explanation. In that previous decision, the Court concluded that a request might be deficient if it failed to make specific allegations. However, relying upon two decisions in the Third District and the Second Circuit, the Court there described a "'chicken/egg' dilemma."
It concluded that the certified copies are required to complete an application, and thus it is illogical that an an applicant must present the "completed copy of the clemency application before producing the certified copies." The Court noted a contrary result had been reached by the Fifth District Court. In effect, you cannot complete the application without the records sought and you in this instance Mobley could not get the records sought without a complete application. It is possible, the Court concedes, to interpret the statute in a manner that could potentially preclude anyone from ever exercising the legislature's grant of free court records.
Therefore, the Court concluded "that under section 940.04, a person requesting certified copies of records required for a clemency application need only attest that he is applying or has applied for clemency." That allegation is sufficient to "to qualify as an 'applicant' and trigger the clerk of court's duty." Note that the Court did say "attest," rather than merely "allege." Therefore it may not be sufficient for someone to present at a clerk's office and merely say "I need copies for a clemency application." However, whether some signed statement ("attestation") is required by the various clerks will be seen in time.
Thus, the Court granted Mandamus and ordered the Clerk to provide the copies to Mr. Mobley as requested. He prevailed of his own accord against the State, demonstrating that a pro se litigant can in fact do so. Some will question why one might go to such lengths (appeals can be expensive) rather than simply paying the costs to copy the records, and there is merit in that question. However, there is also merit in standing up for one's rights for both the personal and societal benefits (all those who come after Mobley seeking their rights).
Finally, this case illustrates the process when District Courts do not agree with each other on an issue of law. Here, the First District agreed with the Third and Second Districts. But, it noted the Fifth District has rendered a contrary analysis. Thus, the law is effectively different in various parts of Florida. Therefore the First District also "certif(ied) conflict with that decision" of the Fifth District. This is a formal method of advising the Florida Supreme Court that this difference exists. With such notice, that Court can now decide whether to review this group of cases to bring its statewide clarity and consistency to the legal interpretation.
An interesting analysis, and an educational expose of interpretation, application, and resolution of intra-District conflict. A worthy read for anyone attempting a statutory interpretation, which is often the task in the workers' compensation community.
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