- Associated Press - Thursday, September 24, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Weighing in on an open-records case involving some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable residents, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an advocacy group failed to qualify for access to documents related to the deaths of some people in the state’s care.

The case pitted the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services against the nonprofit Council on Developmental Disabilities.

The cabinet investigates when a disabled adult in state care is alleged to have been abused or to have died from abuse. Confidential records stemming from the probes may be disclosed under state law to certain individuals and groups, including social service agencies with legitimate interests in a case.

In her majority opinion, Justice Mary Noble said the council - despite its “laudable purpose” - did not meet such a qualification to receive documents sought in its open-records request. Such documents are limited to agencies and providers who need information about the case to do their jobs, she said.

The council sought documents related to the death of a ward of the state who had been transferred to a residential setting. The council broadened the 2010 records request to include documents related to the deaths of anyone who had similar transfers in recent years.

The cabinet denied the request for the records, and two lower courts sided with the cabinet when the council sued.

Noble said the council’s interpretation of the state law restricting access to the records would open the documents to any watchdog group with a general interest in subjects investigated by the council. Such an interpretation “is so broad as to swallow the stated intent” of the law, she wrote.

“To read this exception to be a broad grant of access to any group that might simply want to know, for whatever reason, is simply to read this section of the statute out of context and to ignore the purpose and intent of the whole chapter,” she said.

“The phrase ‘legitimate interest in the case’ means something narrower than a generalized interest in the type of case at issue.”

Noble was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. and Justices Michelle Keller and David Allen Barber. Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson concurred in the result but wrote a separate opinion.

Justice Bill Cunningham led the dissenters in the case. He said the council had a legitimate reason for inspecting the requested records due to its watchdog and advocacy roles. He said the council met the definition of a “social service agency” in the case. Justice Daniel Venters joined in the dissent.

“While these smaller group homes are viewed as more appropriate for individuals with disabilities, abuse and neglect are more likely to occur without notice simply because there are fewer people around to observe what occurs on a day-to-day basis,” Cunningham said.

“For these reasons, the council has an interest in obtaining the requested records.”

Noble said the state cabinet provides an annual report on all allegations of adult abuse, neglect or exploitation, along with actions taken in each case. The report must be made available to community human services organizations. The council is entitled to that report, she said.

She added it might be a better policy to require the cabinet to provide details of an investigation to any group that wants to know about it. But the state General Assembly has opted against such a broad policy, she said.

“It is not our role to define that confidentiality away simply because advocacy or watchdog groups serve a valid purpose,” Noble said.

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