On June 8, Circuit Court Judge J. William Watson Jr. ordered the Town of South Hill to provide Midlothian Attorney Richard Hawkins with documents that were requested from the Town under the Freedom of Information Act back in 2019.
The petition filed in 2020 called for the Court to “review all withheld documents, to reject the exemptions asserted by the Town, to order the Town to produce the requested documents, and to order all other appropriate relief”.
In the final order, Judge Watson ordered the Town to produce the undated, unsigned, typed document identified on p. 9 of the Town’s log of Documents withheld and the undated petition identified on p. 8 of the Town’s log of documents withheld.
Watson ruled that five other documents were exempt from disclosure including: a “2/27/2019 letter identified on p. 7 of the Town’s Log of Documents Withheld, a 8/11/2019 email identified on p. 9 of the Town’s Log of Documents, a 8/22/2019 resignation letter identified on p. 10 of the Town’s Log of Documents Withheld, a 10/3/2019 resignation letter identified on p. 10 of the Town’s Log of Documents Withheld, and a 12/2/2019 resignation letter with enclosures identified on p. 10 of the Town’s Log of Documents Withheld”.
Mr. Hawkins originally made three separate FOIA requests on September 9, 2019 for the Town to produce a number of documents related to the employment of former Finance Director, Kathryn Bigalow, the job description of Town Manager, Kim Callis, complaints from citizens against Callis, cell phone records for Callis, “any employment contracts in force with respect to Kim Callis,” and EEOC Complaints made by current or former employees received by the Town. The lawsuit also stated that the Town’s Finance Director, Director of Public Works, and an unidentified third employee had “difficulties” with Callis.
After initially stating that the town could not provide information on complaints against Callis, a letter was sent to Mr. Hawkins with documents that were “identified as complaints about the Town Manager.” According to the lawsuit, in doing this, “the Town actually confirmed Hawkins’ concern that its initial response was deficient.” Mr. Hawkins was still concerned that he was not receiving “fully responsive documents.”
Hawkins’ followed up on his request in October 2019 with a letter to Town Clerk, Anna Cratch, and the eight individual members of Town Council. In it Mr. Hawkins stated that he specifically requested information on “All complaints from citizens or third parties about Kim Callis that have been sent to or received by (i) any member of the Town Council, (ii) directly to Callis, or (iii) anyone else in the Town government from September 1, 2018 to the present.” He stated that Cratch notified him in a letter on September 23, 2019 that “the Town of South Hill does not have any responsive documents” pertaining to his request. He also stated that Cratch, on behalf of the Town, withheld information regarding Mr. Hawkins’ request for payments made to Kathryn Bigalow based on “personnel exemption” under Va. Code 2.2-3705.1(1). Hawkins disputed this withholding stating that under the same code “things such as payments of public monies to public employees shall not be withheld from the public.”
In November 2019, Hawkins attempted sent another email to the Town Clerk and Town Council Members. In it he stated, “If you have any partially relevant and responsive documents, I expect to receive them. I also expect to receive a list of items that is being withheld, rather than simply a statement invoking an exclusion.”
In December the Town replied to Mr. Hawkins, through counsel, asserting that it was “fully compliant with the FOIA because (i) it had produced all non-exempt responsive documents and (ii) 27 pages otherwise responsive documents were properly being exempt from production under FOIA.” Again Hawkins expressed his concerns about the information he was receiving. The lawsuit states that, “while the letter referred to 27 pages of documents being withheld, he found it difficult to believe that only 27 pages of documents are at issue. He also had concerns that the Town had not fully investigated to see whether or not additional responsive documents exist about any verbal complaints about the Town Manager.”
Hawkins attempted again on January 6, 2019, in an email to Cratch, to obtain documentation regarding complaints filed against Mr. Callis along with the resignation letters of three high level Town employees. The Town responded by declining to provide any further information. He is asking the Court “to order the production of the requested documents, as well as all other appropriate relief under FOIA.” In addition he is asking for the Town to receive “civil penalties under FOIA”, attorney’s fees, and “associated expenses and costs related to this action and all other such relief as is just and proper”.
On February 21, 2020, the Town filed a response to the lawsuit. The Demurrer stated that the Plaintiff filed the petition based on a “hunch” that the Town was withholding documents responsive to his request but had “directed the Court to no fact to support” this claim. In the various responses to Attorney Hawkins’ request for complaints against Town Manager, Kim Callis, the Town acknowledged that 27 documents were withheld based on personnel information exempt according to FOIA Virginia code 2.2-3705.1(1). Of those 27 pages, twenty were comprised of a letter, email string, email, petition, and a memo. Three pages contained an email string that was withheld because “it contains only information subject to the attorney client privilege and a work product doctrine regarding pending litigation exempt from FOIA pursuant to Virginia Code section 2.2-3705.1(2) and (3).” The last four pages that were collected were “not responsive to the request” from Mr. Hawkins. The claim also states that the description of the documents withheld from the FOIA request satisfies the “reasonable particularity” requirement to identify the number of documents withheld, the subject matter of the records, and properly specifies the Code section that authorizes the documents exemption.
Though no date has been set, an appeal was filed on September 7 in the Virginia Supreme Court. When contacted about the lawsuit and appeals, Callis responded, “I cannot comment on pending litigation”.