The Washington State Court of Appeals recently upheld the denial of a public employee’s repeated requests for an agency’s investigative records following the employee’s termination. The Court also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by imposing sanctions (under superior court Civil Rule (“CR”) 11) on the employee for frivolous records requests.  Phillips v. Valley Communications, Inc. (unpublished decision issued December 27, 2010).

The employee, Phillips, who worked at a 911 call distribution center, had complained about his supervisor, triggering agency investigations. Phillips was terminated, after a psychiatric evaluation concluded he was not fit for duty.

In response to his request for documents, Phillips received copies of his personnel and medical files and a copy of the psychiatrist’s report. However he was not given the agency’s complete investigative file, much of which the agency contended was exempt from the Washington Public Records Act (“PRA”) under attorney-client and work product privileges.  Phillips then brought suit in superior court challenging the agency’s compliance with the PRA. Following in camera review, the trial court issued several orders, none of which were appealed by the employee. Meanwhile, during this initial proceeding, Phillips continued to make repeated records requests to the agency for the very same documents, as well as “clarifications” of the agency’s earlier responses.

Several months later, Phillips brought a second suit claiming that the agency failed to comply with the PRA.  The agency moved for injunctive relief. This time, the trial court denied Phillips’ requests, holding that they were bared by res judicata, collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations, since Philips had never appealed the final order from the first superior court proceeding.  The trial court also awarded CR 11 sanctions against Phillips for his frivolous and repeated PRA requests.  But, the court denied the agency’s request for an injunction under RCW 42.56.540 (enjoining examination of public records if such examination would not be in the public interest or would substantially and irreparably damage a person or vital government function). The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s rulings.

This decision highlights the issues courts face when balancing the open-government goals of the PRA with the reality of abusive and/or frivolous requestors.  In the employment context, a PRA request can sometimes serve as an easy way for a disgruntled public employee to burden a former employer.  However, CR 11 sanctions are not commonly imposed on requestors. While the Philips opinion provides limited analysis on this topic, the employee’s repeated and unsupported requests for the same information appear to be the root cause of the Court’s hard-line response. However, the Court also denied the agency’s request for injunctive relief against Phillips. The Court reminds us, once again, that exemptions to the PRA are narrowly construed; despite the inconvenience and burden imposed on an agency by a difficult requestor, the agency must still identify its reasons for withholding records and provide sufficient evidence to support its exemption claims.