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South Carolina Lawyers Weekly v. Wilson

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

March 19, 2018

South Carolina Lawyers Weekly, By and through its principal, Dolan Publishing Company, Appellant,
v.
Scarlett Wilson, Solicitor of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, an elected public official, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2016-000555

          Heard October 5, 2017

         Appeal From Charleston County R. Markley Dennis, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

          Desa Ballard and Harvey M. Watson, III, both of Ballard & Watson, Attorneys at Law, of West Columbia, for Appellant.

          Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Solicitor General Robert D. Cook, and Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., all of Columbia, for Respondent.

          OPINION

          LOCKEMY, C.J.

         In this action pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), South Carolina Lawyers Weekly (Appellant) asserts the circuit court erred in refusing to compel Scarlett Wilson, as Solicitor of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, to produce any disciplinary complaints against her. Appellant argues the circuit court erred by: (1) failing to find Wilson is a public officer and her office is a public body subject to FOIA; (2) relying on Rule 12 of the Rules of Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement to determine the requested documents are not required to be disclosed; (3) finding the documents were exempt from FOIA pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a) (2007 & Supp. 2017); and (4) failing to find Wilson waived her right to confidentiality. We affirm.

         FACTS

         On July 10, 2015, Phillip Bantz, a staff writer for South Carolina Lawyers Weekly sent a FOIA request to Solicitor Wilson's official email address requesting "any records relating to any disciplinary complaints against you or action taken with respect to you as a member of the bar."

         The Ninth Circuit Solicitor's Office (the Solicitor's Office) responded, on official letterhead, and denied Bantz's request. The office noted, "In the last year a number of grievances have been filed against Ms. Wilson by or at the behest of disgruntled criminal defense lawyers . . . . The South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel thoroughly investigated these matters and recommended dismissal of all of these charges."

         In denying the FOIA request, the Solicitor's Office noted that "[w]hile the Solicitor's Office is a 'public body' and subject to FOIA, Ms. Wilson is not personally a 'public body.'"

         The Solicitor's Office further asserted that, were Solicitor Wilson a 'public body, ' the documents requested would be exempt from disclosure under several FOIA exemptions. First, the Solicitor's Office asserted the documents were exempt from disclosure because they are information of a personal nature. See S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(2) (Supp. 2017). The Solicitor's Office also claimed the documents were specifically exempted from disclosure by statute or state law by Rule 12 of the South Carolina Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement (RLDE), which requires disciplinary complaints remain private. See S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(4) (2007). Finally, the Solicitor's Office argued the requested documents included information protected by the attorney-client relationship. See S.C. Code Ann. § 30-4-40(a)(7) (2007).

         Appellant subsequently filed a declaratory judgment action requesting the court declare Solicitor Wilson a public body and any documents she possessed pertaining to her disciplinary records must be made available. Appellant asserted Solicitor Wilson is a public official whose only legal services are provided in her capacity as a public official. Accordingly, Appellant argued "Any documents from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and/or the Commission on Lawyer Conduct received by her relate wholly to her conduct in her capacity as a public official and are thus public documents."

         Appellant also asserted the exemptions Solicitor Wilson claimed were inapplicable in this case. According to Appellant, any reliance by the Solicitor's Office on Rule 12, RLDE, is inappropriate in this case because the Rule only dictates that members and staff of the Commission on Lawyer Conduct, disciplinary counsel and its staff, and the members and staff of the Supreme Court should not reveal the existence of a complaint. Appellant also argued the Solicitor's Office revealed the existence and content of some of the complaints against Solicitor Wilson in its response to the FOIA request, waiving Wilson's claim to confidentiality.

         After a hearing, the circuit court filed its order granting Solicitor Wilson's motion to dismiss on February 10, 2016. The circuit court did not reach the issue of whether Solicitor Wilson is a public body, but rather found the documents were not 'public records' pursuant to the FOIA. The court found the documents were protected from disclosure under Rule 12, RLDE, and as such were exempted from disclosure under section 30-4-40(a)(4). The court also found Solicitor Wilson had not waived her right to confidentiality of the disciplinary complaints by referring to them generally in her response because "Ms. Wilson's letter had no intent whatsoever to waive confidentiality when she invoked the Rules on Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement in her response letter and made quite clear she ...


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