PIA only excepts privately generated information, not publically generated information used for private operations says First District Court of Appeals

Harris County Appraisal District v. Integrity Title Company LLC and Marian Cones, 01-15-00145-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.],  December 15, 2015)

This is a Public Information Act (“PIA”) case where the First District Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court order requiring disclosure of certain information.

Several requestors sought information from the Harris County Appraisal District (“HCAD”) including deed document numbers and filing dates. HCAD received an opinion from the Texas Attorney General that certain information could be withheld. Deed document numbers and deed transaction dates (filing dates) are assigned by the Harris County Clerk when a deed is filed with the Clerk. HCAD then obtains this information from PropertyInfo, a private company that gathers this information from the Harris County Clerk and provides it to HCAD pursuant to a contract. HCAD asserted that the information was excepted from disclosure under two sections of the PIA— §552.149 (the so-called “MLS exception” ) and §552.110 (the trade secrets exception).   The Requestors filed suit to compel disclosure and HCAD filed a plea to the jurisdiction.  The trial court denied the plea, and after a bench trial ruled in favor of the Requestors and compelled release. HCAD brought this appeal.

The court first determined that the PIA grants jurisdiction to the court to consider this request under a mandamus mechanism. A trial court has jurisdiction to consider whether specific information is “public information” regardless of any opinion by the AG. HCAD acknowledges that the deed document numbers and filing dates are publicly available information that PropertyInfo obtains from the Harris County Clerk, but argues that, because HCAD receives the information from PropertyInfo, a private entity, and not from the Harris County Clerk, §552.149 prohibits HCAD from disclosing that information. The court held HCAD’s reading of §552.149 is too broad and that the statute is designed to protect only privately generated information. Further HCAD did not provide any evidence to support the prongs of the “trade secret” exception to disclosure. Since the information is publically generated, the information is not subject to exception.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Higley, Justice Huddle, and Justice Lloyd. Opinion by Justice Huddle.  The attorneys listed for the District are Donna Johnson and Andrea Chan.  No counsel is listed for the Appellee, but the briefing indicates Bill Aleshire filed the Brief of Appellees.