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Steckelberg v. Nebraska State Patrol

Supreme Court of Nebraska

September 23, 2016

Todd Steckelberg, appellant,
Nebraska State Patrol, appellee.

         1. Mandamus: Judgments: Appeal and Error. An action for a writ of mandamus is a law action, and in an appellate review of a bench trial of a law action, a trial court's finding has the effect of a jury verdict and will not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.

         2. Estoppel: Equity: Appeal and Error. A claim of equitable estoppel rests in equity, and in an appeal of an equity action, an appellate court tries factual questions de novo on the record and reaches a conclusion independent of the findings of the trial court.

         3. Estoppel: Words and Phrases. To mend one's hold means that where a party has based his or her conduct upon certain reasons stated by him or her, he or she will not be permitted, after litigation has commenced, to assert other reasons for his or her conduct.

         4. Mandamus: Proof. A party seeking a writ of mandamus under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.03 (Reissue 2014) has the burden to satisfy three elements: (1) The requesting party is a citizen of the state or other person interested in the examination of the public records, (2) the document sought is a public record as defined by Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.01 (Reissue 2014), and (3) the requesting party has been denied access to the public record as guaranteed by Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712 (Reissue 2014). If the requesting party satisfies its prima facie claim for release of public records, the public body opposing disclosure must show by clear and convincing evidence that Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.05 (Reissue 2014) or Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.08 (Reissue 2014) exempts the records from disclosure.

         5. Records: Appeal and Error. It is incumbent upon the appellant to present a record supporting the errors assigned.

         6. __:__. The decision of a district court that is reviewing records in camera under the public records statutes to allow other persons to [294 Neb. 843] review said records is entrusted to the district court's discretion, and is reviewed for an abuse of that discretion.

         Appeal from the District Court for Lancaster County: Susan I. Strong, Judge.

          Joy Shiffermiller, of Shiffermiller Law Office, PC, L.L.O., for appellant.

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, and David A. Lopez for appellee.

          Heavican, C.J., Wright, Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

          Heavican, C.J.


         Todd Steckelberg filed a public records request under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712 (Reissue 2014), seeking records relating to the interview and selection process for a job opening as an "Executive Protection Trooper" with the Nebraska State Patrol (State Patrol). Steckelberg's request was denied, and he sought a writ of mandamus in the district court. Steckelberg's petition for writ of mandamus was denied. He appealed, and we granted the State Patrol's petition to bypass the Nebraska Court of Appeals. We affirm.


         Steckelberg is employed by the State Patrol as a trooper. He was an applicant for a lateral transfer to the position of Executive Protection Trooper. Interviews were conducted on March 26, 2015. Another applicant was awarded the position.

         On April 5, 2015, Steckelberg requested that he be permitted to review his score sheets and the comments and recommendations from the hiring board. That request was denied, with the State Patrol's human resources division informing Steckelberg that the State Patrol would not provide feedback concerning interviews. That same day, Steckelberg inquired as [294 Neb. 844] to why his own records were not provided to him. Steckelberg was again informed that there would be no feedback given regarding interviews, because such records were considered to be confidential.

         On April 9, 2015, Steckelberg made, through counsel, a request under Nebraska's public records laws for "any and all documents regarding the most recent interview for the Executive Protection Trooper position, " including "the completed a [sic] score sheet, which each member made notes and comments on, each recommendation and the Board's recommendation to the Superintendent." The State Patrol sent the listing for the open position but otherwise denied Steckelberg's request, with the State Patrol referencing Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.05(15) (Reissue 2014) as the basis for such denial.

         On May 6, 2015, Steckelberg sought a writ of mandamus in the Lancaster County District Court, again under Nebraska's public records laws, seeking the records that were the subject of his public records request. Trial on Steckelberg's petition was held on August 14.

         The trial court held for the State Patrol and denied Steckelberg's petition for writ of mandamus. The trial court concluded that the records Steckelberg sought could be withheld under § 84-712.05(7), providing that the personal information of personnel could be withheld from examination. The court addressed and rejected Steckelberg's argument that the State Patrol was not permitted to rely on § 84-712.05(7) when its initial denial was purportedly premised on § 84-712.05(15), concluding that its review of the public records request was de novo under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712.03 (Reissue 2014).

         Steckelberg appealed. The State Patrol filed a petition to bypass the Court of Appeals, which we granted.


         Steckelberg assigns, restated and consolidated, that the trial court erred in (1) allowing the State Patrol to rely on [294 Neb. 845] a different exemption than that originally relied upon, (2) finding that Steckelberg had not met his burden of proof to show that the documents were public records, (3) finding the records were exempt under § 84-712.05(7) and accordingly denying his petition ...

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