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Buckmaster v. Department of State

Court of Appeals of Michigan

April 11, 2019

EMILEE KATHRYN BUCKMASTER, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE, Defendant-Appellant.

          Court of Claims LC No. 17-000309-MZ

          Before: Swartzle, P.J., and Cavanagh and Cameron, JJ.

          CAVANAGH, J.

         Defendant, Michigan Department of State, appeals by leave granted[1] an order denying defendant's motion for summary disposition of this case arising under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), MCL 15.231 et seq. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         In 2017, plaintiff's attorney sent defendant a request under the FOIA seeking all vehicle registration and licensing records associated with plaintiff's name and a certain vehicle. Defendant, through its FOIA Coordinator, denied the request for the following reasons with the following instructions:

Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), MCL § 15.231 et seq your request is denied because the exemption contained in MCL § 15.243(1)(d), which authorizes the Department to withhold ". . . record or information specifically described and exempted from disclosure by statute." MCL § 257.208b(1) (emphasis added) of the Michigan Vehicle Code . . . provides[:]
The Secretary of State may provide a commercial look-up service of records maintained under this act. For each individual record looked up, the secretary of state shall charge a fee specified annually by the legislature, or if the legislature does not specify a fee, a market-based price established by the secretary of state. The secretary of state shall process a commercial look-up request only if the request is in the form or format prescribed by the secretary of state.
You must complete the enclosed Record Lookup Request form and pay upfront the associated lookup fees to obtain any driving and/or vehicle records from our Department that are not exempt from release. The fee for each record lookup is $11, $12 if certified for court purposes.

         Defendant notified plaintiff of the right to appeal this decision to the Secretary of State's designee or to bring a court action challenging the decision. Defendant also attached a record look-up request form, which stated underneath the title that "[t]here is an $11.00 charge for each record that is found. Certification is an additional $1.00."

         Plaintiff then filed this action in the Court of Claims, alleging a wrongful denial of requested records under MCL 15.240. Plaintiff acknowledged that the Michigan Vehicle Code (MVC), MCL 257.1 et seq., permits defendant to create and provide a commercial look-up service and that defendant had done so, but plaintiff asserted that the commercial look-up service did not constitute the exclusive way for persons to obtain public records from defendant. Plaintiff alleged that she could also obtain the records through a FOIA request and that by denying her request, defendant violated the FOIA. Thus, plaintiff requested an order compelling disclosure of the records, a declaration that defendant violated the FOIA, an award of all costs, disbursements, and attorney fees, and punitive damages.

         Defendant responded to plaintiff's complaint by filing a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8) and (C)(10), arguing that it lawfully denied plaintiff's FOIA request because plaintiff failed to pay the required fee as established under the MVC, MCL 257.208b(1). Defendant argued that, as stated in MCL 15.234(10), the FOIA's fee provisions do not "apply to public records prepared under an act or statute specifically authorizing the sale of those public records to the public, or if the amount of the fee for providing a copy of the public records is otherwise specifically provided by an act or statute." Thus, defendant argued, "when a person requests public records maintained pursuant to the MVC, the fee provisions within the MVC apply." In other words, the MVC fee provisions preempted the FOIA fee provisions, as stated in the FOIA at MCL 15.234(10), and as this Court held in Ellison v Dep't of State, 320 Mich.App. 169, 180; 906 N.W.2d 221 (2017). Because plaintiff did not pay the full MVC fee in advance, defendant argued, plaintiff's request for the records was properly denied.

         Plaintiff opposed defendant's motion, arguing that defendant did not deny the FOIA request because plaintiff failed to pay the fee required by the MVC. Rather, defendant denied the FOIA request because the motor vehicle records were allegedly "exempt" from disclosure under the FOIA and could only be produced through the commercial look-up service. Plaintiff disagreed with defendant's position, arguing that motor vehicle records could be requested through the FOIA or the MVC: they are not exempt. Plaintiff agreed that the FOIA deferred to the MVC's fee provision and that the MVC established the fee as $11 per record. Although the MVC's fee provision applied, plaintiff argued, the FOIA otherwise controlled the request. Plaintiff also argued that no legal authority existed for defendant's requirement that a requester complete a "record lookup request form" when the request is made through the FOIA, rather than the MVC.

         The Court of Claims denied defendant's motion for summary disposition, holding: "The Secretary of State can neither require the commercial look up nor require advance payment of the fee associated with a commercial look up form." Defendant then filed an application for leave to appeal, which was granted. Buckmaster v Dep't of State, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered October 25, 2018 (Docket No. 343931).

         On appeal, defendant argues that it lawfully denied plaintiff's FOIA request because the MVC's fee provisions apply and plaintiff failed to pay the required fee as established under MCL 257.208b(1); thus, its motion for ...


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