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August 1, 2004

"But My Lawyer Said This Was Legal!"

Can legal advice shield sunshine violators?

Public officials who violate Iowa's Open Meetings or Public Records Laws are subject to paying monetary damages up to $2,500, as well as attorney fees and court costs. But what if a public official acted in reliance on advice of counsel? Reasonable reliance on legal advice may be a defense to individual liability, but governmental bodies remain subject to injunctive relief and attorney fees and costs.

The following principles address when individual public officials who reasonably rely on legal advice may defend against claims for monetary damages, attorney fees and costs:

  • Whose legal advice counts? Public officials may rely on a decision of a court, or a formal or advisory opinion of the Iowa Public Information Board, the Attorney General, or the attorney for the government body. Iowa Code sec. 21.6(3)(a)(3), 22.10(3)(b). Advice from a personal acquaintance who is a lawyer would not constitute a legal defense to monetary damages or attorney fees and costs.
  • Must legal advice be in writing? The decision, opinion, or advice must either be in writing or memorialized in the minutes of the meeting at which the governmental body's lawyer gave a formal oral opinion.
  • Who pays attorney fees and costs? When a violation is proven, all public officials who "reasonably relied" on legal advice (within the scope of the statutes) are shielded from liability for monetary damages, attorney fees and costs. Iowa Code sec. 21.6(3)(a)(3), 22.10(3)(b). If no public officials remain on whom liability can be imposed, attorney fees and costs are paid "from the budget of the offending governmental body or its parent."Iowa Code sec. 21.6(3)(b), 22.10(3)(c).

Remember: reliance on legal advice is a narrow defense to assessment of monetary damages against individual public officials, or payment of attorney fees and costs by them. But, if a violation is proven, governmental bodies remain accountable.

Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws.  Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters.  The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.

The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.

Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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