A wrongful death settlement resulting from a controversial law-enforcement killing should remain secret, lawyers for Albany County argued today in newly filed court documents. That’s despite a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that suggests such agreements with government entities are public records.
Albany County made clear it does not want to produce public documents detailing payments made to Debra Hinkel, whose son Robbie Ramirez was killed by Derek Colling, a then-Albany County sheriff’s deputy with a checkered law-enforcement career. Ramirez, a 39-year-old Laramie resident, was unarmed and living with mental illness.
“The information contained in the settlement agreement and information in this matter is highly confidential and sensitive,” John Bowers, a lawyer for the county, said in a sworn statement accompanying the documents. “I am concerned that if public access to the information is not limited to this court and the appropriate officer of the court, it would adversely affect the parties [in the case] and future governmental operations.”
Hinkel’s lawsuit against the county was settled in May 2022, but Albany County lawyers have denied multiple requests for the documents, despite the involvement of a governmental entity.
Albany County denied WyoFile’s initial Aug. 22, 2022 public records request for the settlement agreements because the documents were “privileged or confidential by law,” then-County Clerk Jackie Gonzales wrote in an email on Oct. 2, 2022.
The parties involved in the suit entered into a confidentiality agreement, but nowhere in the Wyoming Public Records Act, the law governing the release of state and local documents, does it say that settlement agreements are privileged and confidential as a matter of law. WyoFile brought that to the county’s attention at the time, but the records were still not made available.
Ten months later, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in Gates v. Memorial Hospital that confidentiality agreements do not limit public access to settlement agreements with government entities. In light of the new finding, WyoFile resubmitted its request to Albany County on Aug. 22.
Albany County responded through Bowers on Sept. 1 that further clarification from the court and the parties involved was needed before the records could be released.
“We are currently in [a] difficult situation because of the wording of the settlement agreement,” Bowers, who represented Albany County in the lawsuit, wrote in a letter to WyoFile. “We need the Court to direct us on how to address the request to prevent additional claims being made against the County.”
Bowers filed a motion in the U.S. District Court, where Hinkel’s case was originally heard, asking for a hearing to “set forth the obligations of Albany County, specifically in relation to the confidential settlement agreement and its duties pursuant to the Public Records Act and the recent public records request.”
In the motion, Bowers noted that releasing the settlement could make Albany County vulnerable to additional litigation from the other parties named in the suit — Hinkel, Colling and former Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley — who agreed to confidentiality.
On Sept. 7, U.S. Senior District Judge for the District of Wyoming Nancy Freudenthal denied the motion, explaining that Bowers had “not provided any law, rule or authority which would permit the filing of such a motion in a closed case.”
In other words, the judge would not provide the clarity Albany County was seeking.
Following Freudenthal’s decision, WyoFile contacted Bowers via email on Sept. 7 and Sept. 11 to ask if and when the records would be released. It received a reply today with notice of the new filing, asking a state court to intervene to block WyoFile’s access to the requested settlement agreements.
In his motion filed in the 2nd District Court in Laramie, Bowers argued that “public disclosure of the information in the court record would do substantial injury to governmental operations serving the public.” He specifically cited Rule 6(t) of the Wyoming Rules Governing Access to Court Records, which restricts public access to medical records, as grounds to limit WyoFile’s access to the records.
Bowers did respond to a request for comment by press time.
More on this story here.