In an open records lawsuit brought by Albemarle County parent Brian Vanyo against Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS), General District Court Judge Matthew Quatrara criticized the school district’s handling of Vanyo’s records requests as “inept” and ruled that the school district violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The FOIA requires public bodies to provide ready access to records in their custody upon request. FOIA responses must be made within 5 working days, and custodians of public records are required to provide the requested records in whole or in part. If anything is withheld or redacted, custodians must cite the specific subsection of the FOIA that authorizes withholding.
ACPS FOIA Coordinator Phil Giaramita failed to comply with the law in response to each of two records requests made by Vanyo in November and December 2022. His first response was late, incomplete, and lacked code citations for redacted material. Giaramita wrongfully withheld all records related to Vanyo’s second request because he conditioned records delivery on prepayment of costs, which is not lawful under the FOIA.
A public body may make reasonable charges for the retrieval and review of requested records, but it only can require a deposit prior to records delivery if estimated costs exceed $200. Giaramita estimated that Vanyo’s second request would cost $100, but after retrieving all records, he surprised Vanyo with a bill for $435 and told him he would only get access to the records after he paid. That prompted Vanyo to sue.
Only after Vanyo filed his lawsuit did ACPS and Giaramita begin to deliver records as required by the FOIA—54 working days after his first request and 38 working days after his second request. Vanyo also challenged documents being withheld under attorney-client privilege, and outside counsel hired by ACPS confirmed that 30 pages of records were improperly withheld under that exemption.
Given the multiple FOIA violations alleged in Vanyo’s court petition, ACPS offered to waive all costs and reimburse his court fees if he would dismiss his suit altogether. But Vanyo declined. In an exclusive interview with the Schilling Show, Vanyo said, “It was great that I finally got the records I requested at zero cost, but if I had dropped the lawsuit, then there would be no accountability. The county could violate the FOIA against the next person requesting records and again only comply when faced with a lawsuit. Hopefully the judgment that the court rendered will drive some change in the county.”
Vanyo also asked the court to impose a civil penalty against Giaramita, which is granted if a FOIA officer willfully and knowingly violates the law. “It’s a difficult thing to prove,” he said, “but based on some of the records I finally received, it appears that administrators, and Giaramita himself, may have violated School Board policies surrounding the student walkout at Burley Middle School in October.” Vanyo argued in court that Giaramita may have been intentionally frustrating his access to these records to conceal possible violations of regulations limiting employee political activism on school grounds. But Judge Quatrara was reluctant to find willful intent. “He chose to label Giaramita’s actions as ‘inept’ and ‘ham-fisted’ rather than sinister,” Vanyo said. “And that’s fair, given the evidence. But I think there’s more to this story.”
Vanyo plans to dig deeper into records related to the student walkout at Burley, which he thinks will show much more administrator involvement than parents were led to believe.