Alabama attorney general to release secret settlement

Monday, June 15, 1998

The Alabama attorney general's office recently decided to release the terms of a confidential settlement involving the state Department of Post-secondary Education to the Montgomery Advertiser and the public.

Dennis Bailey, an attorney for the Alabama Press Association, applauded the move, noting that Alabama's open records law prohibits state, county and local governments from entering into confidential agreements in civil cases.

The settlement involves three women, Karen Newton, Myra Davis and Sheryl Threatt, who said they were denied promotions because they worked in a system that discriminated against women.

Davis claimed she was denied the job of director of admissions at Lawson State College, Threatt claimed she was denied the job of financial aid director at that same college and Newton claimed that she was demoted after expressing interest in other job opportunities.

On June 5, U.S. Magistrate Vanzetta Penn McPherson said that the women and the Department of Post-secondary Education had reached a settlement. The Advertiser reported that Jerry Templeton, an attorney for the department, said that the terms of that deal were confidential.

Templeton denies making such a remark. He said: “I told that reporter [staff writer Malcomb Daniels] that the documents speak for themselves. I never said that they were confidential. I said that there were terms in there that the parties themselves wanted confidential, but the bottom line is that if someone wanted to go get it, they can.”

Bailey suggested that the attorney general's decision may mark the reversal of a trend to settle cases in secrecy.

Bailey said: “The practice of public bodies entering into secret settlements has been widespread in Alabama. It is a welcome sign for the lawyer for the state of Alabama to take the lead in acknowledging that entering into secret settlements violates our open records.”

The reasons for wanting these documents kept secret vary, Bailey said.

“The stated, general reason is that most plaintiffs or defendants are embarrassed about the settlement,” Bailey said. “Also, it makes the settlement easier [to reach] if the public can't find out the terms.”

He added: “It's a real problem when one party is a public entity subject to the Open Records Act. It's not defensible. It breeds public distrust, and it shouldn't be done. The fact that the attorney general has taken this step sends a very good message that [attorneys] need to end this bad practice.”

Paula Moore, executive editor of the Advertiser, said: “In future cases we don't know [how difficult access to such information may be], but this is a good sign.”

Moore said that her staff is now debating whether to pursue past documents from secret settlements, particularly those involving school boards.

“Our city government often does keep settlements secret, so we have a lot of things to turn our attention to,” Moore said.

Details of the gender-discrimination suit settlement will be released once it has been finalized, according to a spokeswoman in the attorney general's office.