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TexasFile LLC v. Board of County Commissioners of County of Lea & Keith Manes

Court of Appeals of New Mexico

February 12, 2019

TEXASFILE LLC, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF THE COUNTY OF LEA AND KEITH MANES, IN HIS CAPACITY AS LEA COUNTY CLERK AND CUSTODIAN OF PUBLIC PROPERTY RECORDS, Defendants-Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF LEA COUNTY Lisa B. Riley, District Judge.

          Peifer, Hanson & Mullins, P.A. Gregory P. Williams Charles R. Peifer Albuquerque, NM for Appellant

          YLAW, P.C. Robert W. Becker April D. White Sean E. Garrett Albuquerque, NM Miller Stratvert, P.A. Virginia Anderman Albuquerque, NM for Appellees

          InAccord, P.C. Daniel A. Ivey-Soto, NMAC Special Counsel Albuquerque, NM New Mexico Association of Counties Grace Philips, General Counsel Brandon Huss, Associate Counsel Santa Fe, NM for Amicus Curiae New Mexico Association of Counties

          OPINION

          JENNIFER L. ATTREP, Judge.

         {¶1} After numerous exchanges, Plaintiff TexasFile, LLC (TexasFile) and Defendant Lea County (the County), through its county clerk, failed to agree on a method or fee for fulfilling TexasFile's public records request for electronic copies of all the County's real property records and associated indexes. TexasFile filed a lawsuit, alleging that the fee set by the County was unreasonable and amounted to a denial of its records request. TexasFile asserted claims under the Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA), NMSA 1978, §§ 14-2-1 to -12 (1947, as amended through 2018), the Public Records Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 14-3-1 to -23 (1959, as amended l through 2015), and the Recording Act, NMSA 1978, §§ 14-8-1 to -17 (1855-56, as amended through 2017). The County moved to dismiss the complaint. The district . court denied the motion on the grounds that (1) TexasFile failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under IPRA because its records request had not been denied, and (2) neither the Public Records Act nor the Recording Act provided ! TexasFile a private right of action. We conclude that the Recording Act's production i provisions governed the County's obligation with respect to the records request at' issue in this case and that the complaint failed to allege any violation of that act. I Therefore, we affirm the district court's dismissal of TexasFile's complaint, albeit on different grounds.

         BACKGROUND

         {¶2} The relevant facts for purposes of this appeal are undisputed and drawn from the complaint. TexasFile is a Texas-based commercial entity that provides customers online access, for a fee, to real property records from Texas and other states. In October 2013, TexasFile submitted an IPRA request to the County for "an electronic copy of all Lea County real property image and index records that are maintained in digital form by or on behalf of Lea County." The County responded a few days later, explaining that it could "not provide digital copies of [its] records," but that it had "computers and printers available for public use" at a price of 50 cents per page. Further, hard copies of the "indexing records" could be purchased "at a price per record of $.03 and a set[-]up fee of $15.00," with the charges per year averaging between "$1, 100.00 and $1, 600.00."

         {¶3} Unsatisfied with obtaining the requested information in the form proposed by the County, TexasFile replied to the County's response several months later renewing its request for electronic production. TexasFile noted that a provision in IPRA requires records custodians to provide public records in electronic form when the records are specifically requested in electronic form and "available" in that form. TexasFile asserted that the County's records "were plainly available" electronically, given that the records were accessible on computer terminals at the County's offices. The County responded that Section 14-8-9.1 (2011) of the Recording Act requires that counties redact certain "protected personal identifier information" before third parties may "digitiz[e] or purchas[e]" records that would otherwise reveal that information. Based on that requirement, and because its records had apparently not yet been redacted, the County advised, "we do not provide digital copies of our records." The County reiterated that it made computers and printers available to the public during normal business hours, and it charged a copy fee of 50 cents per page. The County added that before leaving its offices, any copy "must be inspected for protected personal identifier information," so that redactions could be made as necessary.

         {¶4} TexasFile replied, contending that Section 14-8-9.1(C) (2011) of the Recording Act required the County to make redactions before digitizing records, and asserting that electronic images should be available to TexasFile. The County responded again, explaining that because it did not have a practice of providing electronic images, it was looking at "options and investigating pricing." After a meeting of the board of county commissioners, the County offered to compile and produce its records in electronic form under the following terms. The County would charge "25 cents per image (page), $100 set[-]up fee plus the cost of the [media] used to convey the records." Any employee time expended in excess of four hours would be charged at $25 per hour. The County reported that a rough estimate of the cost of the records spanning the period from July 1, 2011, to May 2014, "would be around $40, 000," plus approximately "$7, 000" for the associated index. TexasFile, questioning these estimates, asked the County how it "had arrived at a price of 25 cents per image." After reiterating this request several times and receiving no substantive response, TexasFile concluded that the County had "refused to reconsider the 25-cents-per-image fee."

         {¶5} TexasFile then filed its lawsuit in district court, alleging the County's fee demand "for electronic copies of. . . real property records [was] unreasonable," based on "reasonable fee" provisions appearing in IPRA, the Public Records Act, and the Recording Act. TexasFile's prayer for relief included a request for a declaratory judgment, "declaring [the County's] quoted fees for electronic copies of Lea County's real property records unreasonable as a matter of law." The County moved to dismiss. The County contended that TexasFile had no cause of action under IPRA because IPRA provides a private cause of action only to those parties whose requests for inspection have been "denied," see § 14-2-12(A)(2), and TexasFile's request was never denied, as the County at all times made clear the records were available for inspection at its offices. The County further maintained that neither the Public Records Act nor the Recording Act provided TexasFile a private right of action. The district court embraced the County's positions, granted the County's motion, and dismissed TexasFile's complaint with prejudice. The court also denied TexasFi1e's motion for leave to amend its complaint to seek a writ of mandamus under IPRA, Section 14-2-12(B).

         {¶6} TexasFi1e's principal argument on appeal is that the district court erred in concluding the complaint failed to allege a "denial," as required for private party enforcement under IPRA, Section 14-2-12(A). In short, TexasFile interprets IPRA's' enforcement provision to allow requesters to bring actions in scenarios where custodians impose unreasonably high fees, and because TexasFile alleged facts supporting a claim of an unreasonably high fee here, the district court erred in dismissing its IPRA cause of action. TexasFile adds that, even if we decline to adopt its proposed interpretation of IPRA, we should recognize implied private rights of action under the Public Records Act and the Recording Act.

         {¶7} The County responds that TexasFile does not have standing to sue under IPRA because its request has not been denied and only the Attorney General or a local district attorney has standing to bring an IPRA enforcement action not involving a denial. See § 14-2-12(A). The County, along with amicus curiae (New Mexico Association of Counties), next argues that the County's obligation to respond to TexasFi1e's records request is defined by the Recording Act, as the more specific act, rather than IPRA or the Public Records Act. Because the Recording Act does not require electronic production and permits the County to charge up to $1.00 per page, the County argues that TexasFi1e's complaint fails to state a claim. The County adds that the Public Records Act and the Recording Act contain no expressions of legislative intent to create implied private rights of action.

         DISCUSSION

         {¶8} IPRA and the Recording Act impose competing obligations on the County to respond to TexasFile's request, and thus we are called on to resolve this conflict. We conclude that the Recording Act, as the more specific statute, governed the County's production obligation with respect to TexasFile's records request. Because the Recording Act imposes no requirement on the County to produce its documents electronically, we need not determine whether the County's quoted fee for the electronic production was unreasonable or whether the quoted fee amounts to a denial under IPRA. We further conclude that TexasFile's complaint fails to allege a violation of the production obligations set forth in the Recording Act, and thus we need not decide whether the Recording Act creates a private right of action. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's dismissal of TexasFile's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         I. Standard of Review

         {¶9} We review dismissals under Rule 1-012(B)(6) NMRA de novo. See Wolinsky v. N.M. Corr. Dep't,2018-NMCA-071, ¶ 3, 429 P.3d 991, cert, denied, 2018-NMCERT-___ (No. S-1-SC-37287, Oct. 26, 2018). A dismissal for failure to state a' claim is warranted only when it appears a claimant cannot recover on any version of facts provable under the claim. See Valdez v. State,2002-NMSC-028, ¶ 4, 132 N.M. 667, 54 P.3d 71. In reviewing these dismissals, we accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint and we resolve any doubts in favor of the complaint's sufficiency. Id. We review de novo the underlying questions of statutory interpretation and application ...


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