E-Alert Case Updates
In Maryland Public Information Act Dispute, Court Upholds Exemption of Private Financial Information
Immanuel v. Comptroller of Maryland
Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2016/87a15.pdf
In Immanuel v. Comptroller of Maryland, No. 22-C-12-00750 (Md. July 12, 2016), the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the Maryland Public Information Act (“MPIA”), Maryland Code (2014), § 4-101 of the General Provisions Article (“GP”), prohibits disclosure of information that reveals the comparative value of abandoned property accounts.
Back in November, 2011, Petitioner Henry Immanuel sent a MPIA request to the Comptroller of Maryland, requesting an ordered list of the names and addresses of the holders of the 5,000 largest accounts of unclaimed property in Maryland. Petitioner requested this list ordered from largest value to smallest. The Comptroller denied this request, citing GP § 4-336(b)’s exemption for “information about the finances of an individual, including assets, income, liabilities, net worth, bank balances, financial history or activities, or creditworthiness.” In response, Petitioner filed for judicial review in Wicomico County, and also filed a motion to seal the case record, which, according to Petitioner, revealed his “trade secret” of soliciting the information at issue.
The Circuit Court granted the sealing of the record and ordered the Comptroller to comply with the MPIA request and present the information in the requested value order. The Comptroller appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that Petitioner was entitled the requested list, but not sorted by value. Comptroller of Treasury v. Immanuel, 216 Md. App. 259, 274 (2014). The Court remanded the case to the Circuit Court, concluding that Petitioner should “emerge on remand with a list of claims that track the Comptroller’s disclosure obligations under the Abandoned Property Act, but that is not sorted by dollar value.” Id. at 275. On remand, the Circuit Court vacated its order to seal the case, which was then appealed by Petitioner. The Court of Special Appeals held that the Circuit Court did not abuse its discretion in doing so, and agreed with the lower court that extracting:
Immanuel v. Comptroller of Treasury, 225 Md. App. 581, 594 (2015).
The Court of Appeals granted certiorari to consider these issues. See Immanuel v. Comptroller of Maryland, 446 Md. 218 (2016).
The Court began its analysis by explaining that reading together the plain language of the MPIA exemption for personal financial information and the Abandoned Property Act notice publication requirements left room for interpretation. As such, the Court analyzed the statutes’ legislative intent to discern whether it was intended for the Comptroller to disclose the information at issue. Specifically, the Court noted, if two acts can reasonably be construed together, the two should be interpreted consistently with their general objectives and scope. See Gwin v. Motor Vehicle Admin., 385 Md. 440, 462 (2005).
Rather than agreeing with Petitioner’s argument that the MPIA is wholly in favor of disclosure, the Court observed a dual purpose to the MPIA’s enactment: disclosing information about the functioning of the State government, while also protecting the personal individual information that the State retains, as exemplified in the statutory exemptions. See Kirwan v. The Diamondback, 352 Md. 74, 80 (1998); compare Faulk v. State’s Att’y for Harford Cty., 299 Md. 493, 506–07 (1984); see also GP § 4-304. The purpose of the MPIA does not provide for carte blanche, unrestricted disclosure of all public records. Univ. Sys. Of Maryland v. Baltimore Sun Co., 381 Md. 79, 94 (2004). Instead, the MPIA was designed to allow for access to public information “concerning the operation of their government.” Fioretti v. Maryland State Bd. Of Dental Exam’ns, 351 Md. 66, 73 (1988).
Expanding its scope, the Court analyzed the MPIA in light of the federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. § 552. The Court explained that where the purpose and language of a federal statue are substantially similar to that of a subsequent state statute, interpretations of the federal statute are persuasive. See Faulk, 299 Md. at 506. The core purpose of the FOIA is to “contribute significantly to [the] public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.” U.S. Dep’t of Justice v. Reporters Comm. For Freedom of Press, 489 U.S. 749, 775 (1989). On the other hand, the FOIA balances the public interest with the protection of private information collected by the federal government. See Lepelletier v. F.D.I.C., 164 F.3d 37 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
The Court found this relationship between the FOIA and MPIA indicative of the MPIA’s boundaries; the MPIA should not reveal information beyond where State activity ends and private activity begins, even if the government has acquired records on those private individual matters. Under the Abandoned Property Act, while the Comptroller is required to publish the names and addresses, in alphabetical order, of persons entitled to notice, the Act restricts the publication of financial information to only listing claims valued over $100 and received within the last 365 days. See Immanuel, 225 Md. App. at 594. The Act does not allow for Comptroller discretion in the ordering of the publication.
While Petitioner desired an ordering by property value, which, according to Petitioner, would be useful and valuable to him, the Court explained that the purpose of listing the names only by alphabetical order was to limit the information about the accounts, as to not divulge personal financial information. The Court agreed with the Court of Special Appeals that revealing additional financial information, namely that such 5,000 claims are more valuable than others, was exempted from disclosure. Accordingly, the Court upheld the Circuit Court’s order that the Comptroller only disclose the information required for publication under the Abandoned Property Act, and nothing more.
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