Missouri’s Department of Social Services sued for alleged Sunshine Law violations

Florida-based HHS Technology filed a lawsuit against the department Thursday alleging it took 10 months to get a response to a records request, which was a denial

By: - March 17, 2023 2:16 pm

The state argued it didn't have to turn over records because they were exempt from Sunshine Law under the litigation exception, which carves out records related to the nexus of ongoing litigation. (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent)

A software company that successfully sued the state and was awarded $23 million last year has filed a new lawsuit against Missouri’s Department of Social Services, alleging the agency “knowingly and purposefully” violated open records law.

According to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Cole County, Florida-based HHS Technology submitted a request for records to the social services department in late April 2022. The department acknowledged receiving the request in May and said responsive records “may be” available in July. 

The company says it did not hear back from DSS, despite repeated queries, until last month, when after 10 months the state formally denied the request and refused to turn over records.

The state said the documents were exempt from the Sunshine Law because they were related to ongoing litigation. 

The lawsuit disputes that the documents fall under that exemption to Missouri’s open records laws and also takes issue with the 10 months it took the state to deliver its decision.

“The department’s professed need to ‘research’ application of a narrow, straightforward exception to the Sunshine Law cannot justify its 10-month delay in responding to the request,” the lawsuit states.

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Chuck Hatfield, the attorney representing HHS Technology, said in an interview with The Independent he hopes the court clarifies that such delays aren’t permissible.

“They need to respond and answer these requests, and I think the court’s going to tell them so,” Hatfield said.

DSS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2016, a company called EngagePoint sued Missouri for breach of contract over its work on DSS’s case management system.

HHS Technology acquired EngagePoint’s claims for the lawsuit and was substituted as the plaintiff, and last year a Cole County judge ordered the state to pay the company $23 million.

The state has appealed the ruling.

HHS Technology says in its lawsuit that the records request submitted late last April was for documents related to “how the department requested and allocated taxpayer dollars…in its public solicitation process” for a system to modernize its case management of public benefits, between 2013 to April 2022.

According to the lawsuit, the state’s February denial was based on its argument that the documents were exempt from Sunshine Law under the litigation exception, which carves out records related to the nexus of ongoing litigation.

HHS’s lawsuit argues the litigation exception is sufficiently narrow that it shouldn’t apply because the records are “not inherently connected to litigation” — at least not for the entire time period the request covered.

Hatfield said the court will decide whether the records should be closed under that exemption. But a broader issue at play is the “flat-out failure to respond to the Sunshine request, when they told us they’d respond to us at the end of July,” he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to enter judgment deeming the department to have violated Sunshine Law “by not providing timely follow-up or a legitimate denial” of the request, as well as ordering the department to produce the documents and pay an “appropriate civil penalty.”

The department has had issues quickly processing Sunshine requests in the past.

Media, including The Independent, have seen requests for public records from Department of Social Services languish for months, and staff do not always respond to inquiries after the estimated delivery date has passed. 


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Clara Bates
Clara Bates

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and a member of the Report for America Corps.