A Washington Court of Appeals held that the Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act, chapter 41.56 RCW (PECBA), is not an “other statute” exempting records from disclosure under the Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), because the PECBA does not “expressly prohibit or exempt the release of specific records or information.” SEIU 775 v. Freedom Found., No. 48881-7-II (Apr. 25, 2017). This case represents the latest in a string of PRA disputes between local chapters of SEIU and the Freedom Foundation. In two opinions issued in 2016 (see here and here), the court addressed two separate disputes over the “commercial purposes” exemption of the PRA, RCW 42.56.070(9). SEIU is the union representing the individual workers who deliver personal care services to functionally disabled persons.
This latest lawsuit arose out of the Freedom Foundation’s request for Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) records regarding the times and locations of trainings and meetings for the workers. The meetings were held at state facilities and not open to the public; and, DSHS provided time for SEIU to meet with the workers at these meetings. After receiving notice of the Freedom Foundation’s request from DSHS, SEIU sought to enjoin release of the records, concerned that the Freedom Foundation intended to show up at these meetings to discourage the workers from participating in the union.
SEIU argued that the PECBA, specifically RCW 41.56.040 and RCW 41.56.140, provided an “other statute” exemption to the PRA. Those two provisions prohibit public employers or other persons from interfering with or discriminating against public employees’ exercise of the right to organize, and provide that doing so is an unfair labor practice. Division II of the Court of Appeals concluded these PECBA provisions do not explicitly exempt or prohibit the release of records or information that would constitute an unfair labor practice, and are therefore not an “other statute” prohibiting disclosure under the PRA. The Court noted that “no provision of the PECBA prohibits a public employer from releasing records or even addresses the release of records” or “addresses the privacy or confidentiality of information.”
The Court also rejected SEIU’s argument that the PECBA was an “other statute” prohibiting disclosure because it “reflects the legislature’s intent to protect a particular value – public employees’ free exercise of their right to organize.” The Court held that absent an explicit prohibition on the disclosure of certain information, a statute may not serve as an “other statute” exemption to the PRA based on claimed legislative intent alone.