132-9. Access to records.

(a) Any person who is denied access to public records for purposes of inspection and examination, or who is denied copies of public records, may apply to the appropriate division of the General Court of Justice for an order compelling disclosure or copying, and the court shall have jurisdiction to issue such orders if the person has complied with G.S. 7A-38.3E. Actions brought pursuant to this section shall be set down for immediate hearing, and subsequent proceedings in such actions shall be accorded priority by the trial and appellate courts.

(b) In an action to compel disclosure of public records which have been withheld pursuant to the provisions of G.S. 132-6 concerning public records relating to the proposed expansion or location of particular businesses and industrial projects, the burden shall be on the custodian withholding the records to show that disclosure would frustrate the purpose of attracting that particular business or industrial project.

(c) In any action brought pursuant to this section in which a party successfully compels the disclosure of public records, the court shall allow a party seeking disclosure of public records who substantially prevails to recover its reasonable attorneys' fees if attributed to those public records. The court may not assess attorneys' fees against the governmental body or governmental unit if the court finds that the governmental body or governmental unit acted in reasonable reliance on any of the following:

(1) A judgment or an order of a court applicable to the governmental unit or governmental body.

(2) The published opinion of an appellate court, an order of the North Carolina Business Court, or a final order of the Trial Division of the General Court of Justice.

(3) A written opinion, decision, or letter of the Attorney General.

Any attorneys' fees assessed against a public agency under this section shall be charged against the operating expenses of the agency; provided, however, that the court may order that all or any portion of any attorneys' fees so assessed be paid personally by any public employee or public official found by the court to have knowingly or intentionally committed, caused, permitted, suborned, or participated in a violation of this Article. No order against any public employee or public official shall issue in any case where the public employee or public official seeks the advice of an attorney and such advice is followed.

(d) If the court determines that an action brought pursuant to this section was filed in bad faith or was frivolous, the court shall assess a reasonable attorney's fee against the person or persons instituting the action and award it to the public agency as part of the costs.

(e) Notwithstanding subsection (c) of this section, the court may not assess attorneys' fees against a public hospital created under Article 2 of Chapter 131E of the General Statutes if the court finds that the action was brought by or on behalf of a competing health care provider for obtaining information to be used to gain a competitive advantage. (1935, c. 265, s. 9; 1975, c. 787, s. 3; 1987, c. 835, s. 2; 1995, c. 388, s. 4; 2005-332, s. 2; 2010-169, s. 21(c).)