The public is entitled to know when a government body settles litigation. In government, settlements are not secret.
Private parties occasionally agree to keep the terms confidential when they settle a lawsuit. If the settlement is confidential, citizens cannot find out from public records what, if anything, was paid to settle the case. But is confidentiality permitted when a governmental body settles litigation?
A governmental settlement document, including a summary of the settlement agreement, is a public record open for examination and copying, unless the settlement document is made confidential under a specific provision of law.
When a governmental body reaches a final, binding, written settlement agreement that resolves a legal dispute claiming monetary damages, equitable relief, or a violation of a rule or statute, the governmental body shall, upon request and to the extent allowed under applicable law, prepare a brief summary of the resolution of the dispute. The summary must include the following information:
- The identity of the parties involved
- The nature of the dispute
- The terms of the settlement, including any payments made by or on behalf of the government body
- Any actions to be taken by the government body
A government body is not required to prepare a summary if the settlement agreement includes the information required to be included in the summary.
A few provisions of law address public disclosure of these documents in different contexts:
- State Agency Actions: All final orders, decisions and opinions must be available for public inspection with identifying details deleted only as authorized by law to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy or disclosure of trade secrets. Iowa Code sec.17A.3(1)(e).
- Professional Disciplinary Actions: A final written decision by a professional licensing board in a disciplinary proceeding against a licensed professional is a public record. Iowa Code sec. 272C.6(4).
Remember: Governmental bodies are accountable for litigation settlements whether in court or in matters pending before the governmental bodies themselves. Public disclosure is the rule, and confidentiality is the exception.
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.
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