Court of Appeals rejects public records appeal of former Durham district attorney

The Court of Appeals found that an assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts was not the custodian of court system emails. It rejected AOC's argument that the individual writers of email were the custodians, and instead found that the director of AOC is. 

In the fall of 2013, former Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline filed a public records lawsuit against David Hoke, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, after several requests she made for email were not fulfilled. Cline was seeking emails about herself written by others and that she had created while employed as the Durham district attorney. Cline intended to use them in her defense of a pending state bar complaint against her. 

She sent the requests to Hoke and later to Pamela Weaver Best, general counsel for AOC. Hoke supplied some emails but told Cline that he was not the custodian of all of the emails she was seeking. Cline filed a lawsuit, which was heard in Wake County Superior Court on Nov. 1, 2013. The superior court dismissed Cline’s claim because Hoke was sued in his individual capacity and not his official capacity. Cline appealed. 

On Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the failure to sue Hoke in his official capacity warranted dismissal. The court also addressed the AOC’s argument that it was not the custodian of emails written by its employees. The AOC’s position was that each individual employee is the custodian of the emails he or she writes.

This argument is similar to one the AOC made in a recent case involving records contained in the Automated Criminal/Infraction System (ACIS) database that it maintains. The records are entered by court clerks across the state and AOC said that each county’s superior court clerk was the custodian. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument in LexisNexis Risk Data Management v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts in February. That case is before the N.C. Supreme Court on appeal. 

In the Cline case, the Court of Appeals again rejected the argument that it is not the custodian of data that it maintains but that is created by others within the court system. The court also found that Hoke was not the custodian of the records under the N.C. Public Records Act because he is an assistant director. The public records law defines the custodian as “the public official in charge of an office having public records.” 

Read the Court of Appeals opinion in Cline v. Hoke here