Union Leader v. City of Laconia, Doc. No. 211-2012-CV-064 (Belknap Super. Ct., May 9, 2012) (O'Neill, J.)

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Union Leader Corporation


City of Laconia

Docket No. 12-CV-064


Hearing on the merits held (3/30/12) on the petitioner's Petition for Access to Public Records and Information (filed 2/21/12). Subsequent to review, the Court renders the following determination(s).

The petitioner, the Union Leader Corporation (the "Union Leader"), seeks "the release of the name of" a burn victim from the respondent, the City of Laconia, under RSA 91-A. The Court finds the following undisputed relevant facts.

The City and Lakes Region General Hospital ("LRGH") have entered into a contract to form a team to provide emergency care to residents of the City. Under the contract, LRGH pays for a fleet of ambulances for the City to use and provides funds for the City to hire emergency medical service ("EMS") personnel to staff the ambulances and respond to emergency calls. The contract also specifies that both the City and LRGH are to comply with all elements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA").

On or about January 28, 2012, a smoke/heat detector in the Millview Apartment complex was activated. Subsequently, the City's firefighters, EMS personnel, and police responded to the alarm. When the EMS personnel arrived at the scene, they found a victim outside of the building with moderate to severe burns covering much of his body. The EMS personnel began [2] administering medical care to the victim. He was transported to the emergency room at LRGH and subsequently transported via Dartmouth Hitchcock Advance Response Team ("DHART") helicopter to Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital in Lebanon, New Hampshire for further medical treatment.

On January 30, 2012, a Union Leader staff reporter sent a letter to the City's Fire Chief and Chief of Police, requesting the "release of the name of the man who suffered severe burns in his home in the Millview Apartments, Saturday, Jan. 28 about 3:20 p.m." The City refused to disclose the man's name, citing HIPPA and the general privacy exemption to RSA 91-A. The Union Leader subsequently filed the underlying petition.

Determining whether the City is required to release the name of the man, requires the Court to interpret RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law. Where statutory language is clear and unambiguous, the Court accords the words used their plain meaning. Grand China, Inc. v. United Nat. Ins. Co., 156 N.H. 429, 431 (2007). The Court does not "consider words and phrases in isolation, but rather within the context of the statute as a whole." Id. This technique "enables [the Court] to better discern the legislature's intent and to interpret statutory language in light of the policy or purpose sought to be advanced by the statutory scheme." Id.

Under RSA 91-A:4, I, "[e]very citizen during the regular or business hours of all public bodies or agencies, and on the regular business premises of such public bodies or agencies, has the right to inspect all governmental records in the possession, custody, or control of such public bodies or agencies, including minutes of meetings of the public bodies, and to copy and make memoranda or abstracts of the records or minutes so inspected, except as otherwise prohibited by statute or RSA 91-A:5." "While the Right-to-Know Law guarantees 'every citizen . . . the right to inspect . . . and to copy' all public records 'except as otherwise prohibited by statute,' it [3] specifically does not 'require a public body or agency to compile, cross-reference, or assemble information into a form in which it is not already kept or reported by that body or agency.'" Hampton Police Ass'n, Inc. v. Town of Hampton, 162 N.H. 7, 12 (2011) (quoting RSA 91-A:4) (internal citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

Upon review of the facts and arguments, the Court finds that the Union Leader has failed to request the right to inspect a governmental record. The Union Leader only requested the "release of the name" of the victim. The Union Leader did not specify a governmental record on which the name of the victim would appear.1 Indeed, the Union Leader appears to be requesting that the City create a record with only the name of the victim listed. The City is not required to create a document that does not already exist. E.g., Hampton Police Ass'n, 162 N.H. at 12-13; Hawkins v. N.H. Dept. of Health & Human Servs., 147 N.H. 376, 379 (2001); Brent v. Paquette, 132 N.H. 415, 426 (1989). Without information regarding which governmental record is sought by the Union Leader, the Court cannot evaluate whether the City failed to comply with the Right-to-Know Law.

Accordingly, the Union Leader's Petition for Access to Public Records and Information is dismissed.


   5/9/12       /s/   

Date James D. O'Neill, III

Presiding Justice

1 The Court notes that the Union Leader explains that it is not requesting "protected health information." (Pet'r's Memo. in Support of Petition at 3.)