Expert’s litigation report is “super-public” under PIA once “completed” says 3rd Court of Appeals.

ICON Benefit Administrators II, L.Pet al  v. Greg Abbott, Attorney General of Texas; and The City of Lubbock, 03-11-00459-CV (Tex. App. – Austin August 22, 2013)

This is a Public Information Act lawsuit where several companies sought to prevent the release of an expert “audit report” which is in the City of Lubbock’s possession.  Appellants (collectively “Parker Group”), filed a temporary injunction to prevent the release of the report which was denied by the trial court so the Parker Group filed this interlocutory appeal.

From 2004 through 2006, the City of Lubbock contracted with the Parker Group to provide third-party administration of the City’s self-funded health-care plan. Disputes arose between the Parker Group and the City regarding whether the group satisfied its contractual obligations. Litigation arose and, in part of a defamation claim, the City hired an expert to audit the services provided and establish the statements made about non-compliance were true and therefore not defamatory. As part of the report, the Parker Group was ordered, under a protective order, to provide certain sensitive information. The defamation lawsuit was ultimately settled and dismissed but arbitration regarding the contract dispute continued. The arbitrator issued a protective order protecting the audit, but shortly afterwards the City received several Public Information Act requests for the document.  The AG determined the City must release the audit since it was a completed report and was “super-public.”  The Parker Group obtained an order from the Dallas Court of Appeals noting that the protective order in the defamation lawsuit precluded release. However, while that appeal was pending, the Parker Group initiated this lawsuit against the AG and the City.

The Austin Court of Appeals noted that it was not expressing any opinion on whether or not the Dallas Court of Appeals opinion shielded the report from release as the current appeal challenges only the denial of a temporary injunction which is reviewed under an abuse of discretion.  The Parker Group argued the audit report was not “complete” because it omits a detailed finding of claims, did not meet accounting industry standards for an “audit” and only a report that contains all component parts is a complete report under §552.022 of the PIA. The AG and City asserted “completed” means it is finished and brought to an end.  The 3rd Court of Appeals noted a distinction between “complete” and “completed.” So, despite the trial court’s comments on the record it did not appear to be completed, the fact the auditor continued to work on it, and it did not meet industry standards without the additional information the Court of Appeals held it was completed for purposes of §552.022.   As a result, it was not error to deny the injunctive relief.

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