Home > Uncategorized > COFAR renews request for DPPC report on woman’s death in wake of Boston Globe court ruling

COFAR renews request for DPPC report on woman’s death in wake of Boston Globe court ruling

Although the state’s Public Records Supervisor ruled in April that the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) can keep all investigative reports on the sudden death of a developmentally disabled woman secret, we believe a recent state Superior Court ruling has provided a basis for renewing our request for the records.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Douglas H. Wilkins in December 2017 upheld an appeal by The Boston Globe, which has been seeking mug shots and incident reports of police and other public officials who have been arrested on various criminal charges.

In our view, the Globe’s argument that the records it is seeking are public applies equally to the DPPC report and related records in the case of Karen McGowen, which COFAR has been seeking.

Ms. McGowen was killed in an apparent accident last November. She reportedly fell from a wheelchair lift while getting out of a van at her Pittsfield-based day program funded by the Department of Developmental Services.

The DPPC, which is charged with investigating or supervising investigations of abuse and neglect of disabled adults under the age of 60, confirmed it was investigating Karen McGowen’s death. On February 13, the DPPC denied COFAR’s request for the records in the case.

In her decision on our records appeal on April 20, Rebecca Murray, the state public records supervisor, focused on one exemption to the Public Records Law [known as “Exemption (a)”], which appears to give blanket authority for the enactment of statutes and regulations that can potentially exempt all records of particular state agencies from disclosure.

We are arguing in our renewed bid for the DPPC records that the DPPC’s enabling statute does not actually explicitly state that all of the Commission’s regulations are exempt from disclosure.

In her April 20 determination, Murray focused on the DPPC’s regulations, which, contrary to the enabling statute, do explicitly state that the Commission’s records are not public. The regulations would therefore appear to exempt all or most of the Commissions records from public disclosure.

But that apparent inconsistency between the DPPC’s enabling statute and regulations was not noted in Murray’s determination.

That appears to be the crux of the matter because a similar apparent inconsistency between a statute and regulations regarding the state’s CORI law is the basis of Judge Wilkins’ December decision in the Globe’s public records case. In his ruling, Wilkins upheld the Globe’s argument that the CORI law does not permit public officials to block the release of mug shots or police reports.

Wilkins also upheld the Globe’s argument that a regulation issued by the state agency that administers the CORI law is inconsistent with the law in that the regulation appears to justify withholding the records from disclosure.

“The regulation is invalid because ‘its provisions cannot in any appropriate way be interpreted in harmony with the legislative mandate,'” Wilkins’ decision stated.

State Attorney General Maura Healey and the City of Boston have appealed Wilkins’ ruling. Oral arguments in the appeal have not yet been scheduled, according to a reporter we talked to at the Globe.

With regard to the DPPC’s records, the Commission’s enabling statute states that: “The Commission shall promulgate regulations establishing procedures to exclude personally identifiable information regarding the subjects of investigations and to carry out the responsibilities of this chapter in such a way as to disclose as little personally identifiable information as possible.” (my emphasis)

However, the DPPC regulations seem to go well beyond that, stating that “the records of the Commission shall not be considered ‘public records’…”

The regulations go on to exempt from disclosure all “investigative materials” compiled by the DPPC. And the regulations state that the DPPC can determine that “the mere removal of identifying personal data would be insufficient to protect existing privacy interests, or that disclosure would not be in the public interest…”

Our argument is that the DPPC’s statute does not state that DPPC records are not public or that all investigative materials are exempt. And the statute doesn’t give the DPPC the discretion to determine that the agency can withhold all records because removing identifiable information would not protect privacy interests. The statute simply says the Commission should disclose as little identifiable information as possible.

As a result, it appears to us that the DPPC regulations are similarly invalid because their provisions cannot be interpreted in harmony with the DPPC’s legislative mandate.

In his decision in the Globe’s case, Judge Wilkins wrote that if any doubt remained about that type of inconsistency, the CORI statute “establishes a clear ‘presumption that the record sought is public’ and places a burden on the record’s custodian ‘to prove with specificity the exemption which applies’ to withheld documents.”

Similarly, we argue that the DPPC’s enabling statute establishes a clear presumption that the Commission’s records are public and that the Commission has the burden of proving with specificity the exemption that applies to withheld documents. In stating that the records of the Commission are not public, the regulations contradict the plain language of the statute.

So it is the burden of the DPPC to prove that any of the exemptions to the Public Records Law apply to the information we are seeking — particularly to completed reports. To the extent that personally identifiable information exists in those documents, the Commission can redact it.

Given that we think the DPPC is still likely to deny our renewed request, we hope that the Public Records Supervisor will then take Judge Wilkins’ decision into account in making a new determination in the matter. In doing so, the Public Records Supervisor should at least seek to review the materials we are requesting to determine the level of redactions that would be needed to comply with the DPPC’s enabling statute.

As we’ve stated before,  it’s disappointing that to the extent the DPPC does get involved in crucial investigations of abuse and neglect in the state’s human services system, it has taken the position that the products of its work must be kept secret.

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