Supreme Court Nominee: US Solicitor General's Communications Exempt under FOIA

The nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court prompted document requests to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The D.C. District Court recently upheld a DOJ determination that records from the office of the Solicitor General were exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The records either were privileged or were not “agency records” subject to disclosure. Media Research Center v. U.S. Department of Justice and Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Justice, 2011 WL 4852224 (Oct. 13, 2011).

In response to FOIA requests, DOJ began an electronic search of its files encompassing the dates of Justice Kagan’s tenure as Solicitor General. The search identified 1400 pages. After review, DOJ concluded that 86 pages were responsive to the requests under FOIA.

DOJ released 45 of the 86 pages, and withheld 41 pages under two theories: first, that they were not “agency records,” and second, that they fell under the “work product privilege” (exemption 5 to FOIA). DOJ released a log (often referred to as a “Vaughn Index”) providing its reasoning for every withheld or redacted document.

Plaintiffs challenged: 1) the adequacy of the initial search; 2) the determination that the 41 pages were not “agency records;” 3) the claim of attorney work product on six redacted documents; and 4) the claim concerning the deliberative process privilege.

  1. Adequacy of the Search. The Court concluded that DOJ’s search of its paper, electronic, and email files was adequate, and that plaintiffs’ conjecture that there should be additional records was insufficient to justify a different conclusion. See, Weisberg v. Department of Justice, 705 F.2d 1344 (D.C. Cir. 1983); Iturralde v. Comptroller of the Currency, 315 F.3d 311 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (agency’s search must be reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents, measured by the search methods and not by the results of the search).
     
  2. Agency records. In rejecting the Plaintiffs request for the Solicitor General’s correspondence about her nomination to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit Court found the correspondence “was not relied upon by the [Office of Solicitor General] in carrying out its business, but rather was used for a purely personal objective…the documents were personal, not attributable to the agency, and therefore were not “agency records.”
     
  3. Exemption 5 to FOIA, and the “Work Product Privilege.” Exemption 5 to FOIA allows an agency to withhold records that would be privileged from discovery during litigation. This exemption incorporates the work product doctrine and the deliberative process privilege. Department of the Interior v. Klamath Water Users Protective Association, 532 U.S. 1 (2001). Applying Exemption 5 and the attorney work product doctrine, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that a specific claim is necessary to invoke the doctrine. Instead, an objectively reasonable belief that litigation is a real possibility triggers the privilege. The Court did not reach the deliberative process question.

For reference to Washington’s PRA exemptions for attorney-client and other privileges that may give rise to exemptions from disclosure, see WA Court of Appeals Decision in Zink v. City of Mesa Has Many Public Records Act Lessons for Municipalities.
 

Yes, We Have No Documents: WA Court of Appeals Affirms Denial of Prisoner's PRA Claims

In another of a series of prisoner Public Records Act (PRA) requests in the State of Washington, a Court of Appeals has affirmed the trial court’s denial of a prisoner’s claims that (1) he should be able to review documents to see if there are none, and (2) he should be able to have the medical records of his victim. Simpson v. Okanogan County (unpublished opinion). (See previous 2011 blogs relating to prisoner related public records requests posted on January 20 and January 28.)

In his request from prison, Simpson asked for the records on his case from the prosecutor’s office, including the medical records of his victim. In addition, he asked for the personnel file of the elected Okanogan County prosecuting attorney; and, for the records of any insurance obtained by the County for the prosecutor. In response, the County provided Simpson with his criminal file. But, the County withheld the medical records of his victim; stated that the County had no personnel file for the elected prosecutor; and, that it had no documents relating to insurance for the prosecutor. When Simpson sued to challenge both the withholding of medical records and the denial of documents, the trial court granted summary judgment to the County, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Although this is an unpublished opinion, the Simpson decision cites useful Washington precedent related to the two issues noted above:

(1) A declaration that, “Yes, we have no documents,” is conclusive.

“An affidavit stating that a record does not exist is dispositive on a PRA claim; there is no right to personally inspect records to confirm that no record exists. Sperr v. City of Spokane, 123 Wn. App. 132, 136-137, 96 P.3d 1012 (2004).”

(2) Health care records are generally exempt from disclosure under the PRA.

“The exemption for patient health care records is assessed in accordance with the standards of chapter 70.02 RCW, which is incorporated into the PRA by RCW 42.56.360(2). Prison Legal News, Inc. v. Dep’t of Corrections, 154 Wn.2d 628, 644, 115 P.3d 316 (2005). In turn, RCW 70.02.020(1) generally prohibits disclosure of health care information without the patient’s consent. In turn ‘health care information’ is defined in relevant part by RCW 70.02.010(7) as ‘any information . . . that identifies or can readily be associated with the identity of a patient.’ . . . Mr. Simpson knew very well whose information he was requesting – the only health care information that was relevant to his criminal case. Blacking out his victim’s name would not disassociate the records from a particular known person.”
 

Clash of Principles: Academic Freedom v. Freedom of Information

The March 30 edition of the New York Times reports that a research group in Michigan has made a public records request of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University for any e-mails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil, including any e-mails with reference to Rachel Maddow – the MSNBC talk show host.

Greg Schulz, the director of academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors is quoted as asserting “We think this will have a chilling effect on academic freedom. We’ve never seen FOIA requests used like this before.”

In the State of Washington, however, the issue of academic freedom v. freedom of information has long been decided in favor of the freedom of information. In 1994 the Washington Supreme Court held that documents regarding research proposals for primate experiments that didn’t fall within specific statutory exemptions were subject to disclosure under the State’s Public Records Act – despite the contention of the University of Washington that academic freedom protected those records from disclosure. Progressive Animal Rights Society (PAWS) v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 243, 884 P.2d 592 (1994).

In PAWS, the Washington Supreme Court directly addressed the University’s argument that “the grant proposal should be exempt in its entirety because disclosure of a researcher’s preliminary ideas violates a putative constitutional privilege of academic freedom.” Rejecting that argument, the Court held that neither the popular initiative that first adopted Washington’s Public Record Act nor the legislature in later amendments had created an exemption from the Public Records Act for academics. Further the Court noted that, “Even assuming there were plausible grounds for doing so, it would be difficult to grant special First Amendment protection to public university employees while denying it to other state employees.”

On the other hand, both the trial court and the Supreme Court held that information in the proposal that would reveal research hypothesis, data, valuable formula and the like should be redacted from the documents as they are covered by exemptions to the Public Records Act. The Court also excluded the peer review “pink sheets” from disclosure, as they were documents reflecting a deliberative process for an unsuccessful proposal and thus exempt under the “deliberative process” exemption. But, the Court also noted “Once the proposal becomes funded, it clearly becomes ‘implemented’ for purposes of this exemption and the pink sheets thereby become disclosable.”
 

King County Council Acts to Address Social Media and Public Record Laws

The King County Council recently took action to ensure that the County’s use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, complies with the County’s obligations under various King County and Washington public record laws, including Chapter 2.14 K.C.C. and Chapters 40.14 and 42.56 RCW. 

A number of County agencies are beginning to use online social media to engage and communicate with the public.  For example, Metro Transit uses its Twitter page to update commuters on the status of various bus routes – a tool that was especially important during the recent November snow storm. In light of the growing use of Facebook, King County Elections now uses its Facebook page to encourage young voter registration and to educate King County residents about the County’s mail-in ballot system. The King County Council wants to ensure that public posts on these and other County social media sites comply with public record laws.

The ordinance passed by the King County Council (Ordinance 2010-0507, Dec. 13, 2010) created a Social Media Advisory Group responsible for providing the Council with policy options for ensuring ongoing compliance. The Advisory Group will be made up of four representatives of the King County Public Records Committee, together with representatives from various King County agencies and local not-for-profit agencies.

The Advisory Group is to produce a Social Media Policy Options Report for the Council by March 31, 2011. The report is to include a range of policy recommendations, including: (1) options for effective use of social media to communicate with the public; (2) an online training module for employees authorized to use social media on behalf of King County; (3) a description of existing policies and laws that regulate King County’s use of social media; and, (4) options for cost effective ways to address the public records retention requirements.

The Ordinance also directs King County agencies to identify those employees authorized to use social media for County business and to ensure that those employees complete the training program developed by the advisory group. 

The list of public agencies using social media continues to grow. As new forms of social media are developed and adopted, government agencies should be proactive to ensure compliance with applicable public record laws. See Sven Peterson’s article: “Public Records can only be Destroyed in Accordance with Appropriate Records Retention and Destruction Policies.”  

Missouri Court Rejects Claim Against City For "Lost" Documents

In a departure from other court decisions pertaining to electronic public records, the Missouri Court of Appeals declined to sanction city government officials for failing to produce certain email messages requested by a citizens group.

In Concerned Citizens for Crystal City v. City of Crystal City, ---S.W.3d---, 2010 WL 4195827 (Mo. App. E.D.), the Concerned Citizens for Crystal City (“CCCC”) opposed the City’s approval of a redevelopment plan that would turn an abandoned glass factory into an iron smelter. During a protracted discovery battle, CCCC pointed to several instances of discovery violations that it alleged were prejudicial.  The group was particularly incensed by the Mayor’s and the City Clerk’s failure to produce certain emails.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny CCCC’s request for sanctions against the City, noting that “the emails at issue were few in number.”  The Court acknowledged that the documents had not been retained either electronically or in hard copy.  The Court accepted the City’s explanation of the missing emails: “[T]hey cannot find them, they do not have them, and nothing was done intentionally, or in an effort to hide them.”

This decision can be contrasted with O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, ---Wn.2d---, ---P.3d---, 2010 WL 3911347, a recent case decided by the Washington Supreme Court.  In O’Neill, the Court found that metadata can be a public record and is subject to disclosure under Washington’s Public Records Act.  The O’Neill decision essentially requires that emails and other electronic documents need to be preserved in their original electronic forms, as paper copies will no longer be sufficient.  Even if only a small number of records is at issue (a single email was central to the O’Neill case), proper preservation is essential.  The Missouri Court of Appeals appears to condone a “best efforts” approach to preservation of electronic records, while the Washington Supreme Court has imposed strict penalties and even proposed searching the hard drive of a government official’s personal computer to locate and obtain an electronic public record in its native form.

Washington Supreme Court Finds Metadata is a Public Record

In a public records case with significant implications for government management and storage of electronic data, the Washington Supreme Court ruled on October 7, 2010 that metadata, the “hidden information about electronic documents created by software programs,” can be a public record and subject to disclosure under that State’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW. For Washington local governments and public agencies, the Court’s decision in O'Neill v. City Of Shoreline, Case No. 82397-9 (Oct. 7, 2010), puts public records officers and other employees on notice that e-mails and other electronic documents may need to be maintained in their original electronic forms to preserve metadata; paper copies will no longer be sufficient for preservation and may not be responsive to some requests. In a footnote, the Court pointed out that regulations on document retention recently promulgated by the State Archivist now require preservation of e-mail metadata. WAC 434-662-150.

Beyond the issue of metadata as public record, the Court also tangled with the issue of electronic government records on a public employee’s personal computer. The document that gave rise to this case was a single e-mail forwarded to the Deputy Mayor of the City of Shoreline as a blind carbon copy. After the e-mail’s contents were discussed at a City Council meeting, a citizen requested a copy of the e-mail. The City provided a paper copy of the e-mail. Later, the citizen requested metadata for the complete e-mail thread but the Deputy Mayor said she had already deleted the e-mail. But the Court ruled that since the Deputy Mayor had used her personal computer for City business, it is appropriate for the City to search her hard drive in attempt to locate the deleted metadata. If the City refuses to inspect the hard drive, then the Supreme Court indicated the trial court should find a Public Records Act violation. No direction was given as to what would happen if the Deputy Mayor (no longer in office) does not consent to the search.

Although this was a 5-4 decision, the dissent does not question that metadata associated with an electronic document may be a public record. This is not surprising given the liberal construction accorded the broad definition of “public records” and “writings” in RCW 42.56.010. See RCW 42.56.030 (“This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed….”) Instead, the dissent questions a more basic point as to whether materials on a public employee’s private computer, metadata or otherwise, are public at all since they are not “retained by any state or local agency.” The dissent also questions how the majority can condition the City’s compliance with the Public Records Act on “an impermissible search or inspection” because obtaining records from an employee’s personal computer would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person” which would bar the requester from obtaining the record under RCW 42.56.050.

Although the Court’s two factions may disagree on the limits to which an agency must go to obtain public records from a personal computer and whether public work on private computers is public, the clear direction from the entire Court is that metadata falls within the category of materials that can be public records. Local governments will need to evaluate how they manage and store electronic data to ensure they are properly preserving and producing metadata as part of their public records.

The decision in O’Neill on public metadata access is the first such case in Washington and the holding is similar to that of the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009.

Some helpful links on metadata and local government records management:

A good primer on metadata and the law.

Washington State Archives Records Management for Local Governments (including newly adopted retention schedules).

The Sedona Guidelines: Best Practices & Commentary for Managing Information and Records in the Electronic Age (no cost registration required).
 

Digital Photocopiers May Contain Public Records

On Wednesday April 23 the State Archivist circulated a reminder that digital photocopiers contain hard drives with images of scanned records. These must be treated as public records, and all applicable federal, state and local rules must be followed, including those rules mandating the protection of confidential information. The archivist suggested that the hard drives on photocopiers should be erased before the copiers are traded in. A link to a CBS news story regarding records on digital copiers owned by public entities that was circulated by the archivist can be found here.

Public Records Requests May be Answered by Posting to the Internet

In order to preserve taxpayer resources the legislature has revised the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, to allow agencies to refer records requesters to documents available on its website.  Under current law, an agency that receives a public records request must respond within five days by either (1) providing the requested records, (2) denying the request, or (3) providing the requester with a reasonable time estimate for fulfilling his or her request. Effective June 10, SB 6367 provides agencies with a fourth option.  If the record is available on the agency website, then the agency may provide a link to the specific records requested.  However, if the requester notifies the agency the agency that he or she cannot access the records via the internet, then the agency must provide copies to the requester or allow the requester to view copies using an agency computer.   A copy of the session law can be found here.

Washington State Archives Publishes Records Management Advice Regarding Blogs, Wikis, Facebook and Twitter

The Washington State Archives recently published a records management advice sheet entitled “Electronic Records Management: Blogs, Wikis, Facebook, Twitter & Managing Public Records” that provides guidance to state and local government agencies regarding the retention of public records of posts to social networking websites such as blogs, wikis, Facebook, and Twitter. 

The advice sheet provides five (5) factors for agencies to consider when managing the retention of public records created or received through social networking sites. These factors include determining whether the posts are public records (yes, if the posts are made or received in connection with the transaction of the agency’s public business). Determining whether the posts are simply copies of records that the agency is already retaining or whether the posts are primary records. Determining how long the posts will be retained and how the agency will retain the posts (especially if the posts are maintained by a third-party vendor). Finally, determining which business activities are appropriate for social networking, particularly if the agency is unable to manage the creation, receipt, and retention of the posts as public records.

Washington Appellate Court Rules that Destruction of Informational-Only Emails Pursuant to a Records Retention Policy Does not Violate the Public Records Act

On October 13, 2009, Washington State Court of Appeals (Division II) affirmed a trial court’s summary judgment in a public records case brought by the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW). BIAW sued Pierce County when the County did not produce certain email records that the BIAW had located from a different agency. The court ruled that emails from the Washington Secretary of State’s office to the Pierce County Auditor had been properly deleted pursuant to the applicable retention policies. The Court further held that the State’s Public Records Act (PRA) does not authorize a requestor to comb through agency records searching for records that do not exist.

At issue were several informational emails that were sent by the Secretary of State to all county auditors regarding voter registration forms submitted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). When these emails were not produced by Pierce County in response to a public records request, BIAW sued, arguing that the County was withholding the emails in violation of the PRA or had destroyed them in violation of Washington State's Preservation and Destruction of Public Records Act, chapter 40.14 RCW. In response the County contended that the emails had likely been deleted pursuant to its general records policies since the emails were purely informational. The County submitted affidavits to the trial court demonstrating its office policies and procedures, the use of email, and what had happened in the particular circumstances involved.

The Court agreed with the County, stating that BIAW had failed to introduce evidence contradicting the County’s affidavits. The Court also noted that the County’s procedures comply with applicable retention policies published by the Secretary of State regarding informational only emails; and, that destruction of records in accordance with retention policies is allowed as long as no public records request for those records is outstanding at the time of destruction. Neither the trial court nor the appellate court reached the issue of whether the improper deletion of a record in violation of chapter 40.14 RCW would constitute a separate violation of the PRA.

Disclosure + Internet = Threat to Democracy?

Update 8/3

Here's an update from the Open Records Blog -- a great blog that tracks state public records issues nation wide -- on the R-71 controversy.  The Post also provides Tim Eyman's perspective on the issue. 

Update 7/30

As noted by the Seattle Times, a Federal Judge has issued an injunction prohibiting the State from releasing the names of the persons who signed the R-71 petition.  According to the Times:

Judge Settle . . . gave what appears to be a nod to the strength of the referendum backers' case, writing that they "have sufficiently demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits" of their First Amendment claim, and "a reasonable likelihood of irreparable harm if the names are released."

Here is an editorial from the Yakima Herald on this ruling:  "Open records means just that -- so release the names on R-71"

Update 6/11

The Secretary of State's office has weighed in on this debate on its blog, "From Our Corner."  The post summarizes of Elections Director Nick Handy's position and captures the conflicts this issue raises:

State Elections Director Nick Handy notes the the state has long been committed to open records and transparency in government, but says he’s unhappy with the thought of the petition process being used as a weapon to dampen voters’ participation in their constitutional right of petition.

***

“Nobody is comfortable with releasing personal information in situations like this, but it is part of transparency in government,” Handy says. “We hope people will keep their cool.”

Almost everyone would agree that information on campaign donations should be public, and it is.  Likewise, almost everyone would agree that information about how an individual voter voted should be private, and it is.  Signing a petition seems to fall somewhere in between, but under current law, no privacy exists. 

Original Post 6/10

In this Seattle Times article, the author puts the spotlight on a new trend of publicizing the names of persons who sign petitions for initiatives and referenda.  The stated goal of this tactic is to foster conversations between those who sign a petition and their friends and family who oppose the initiative or referendum.  Critics say the real goal is to intimidate potential signers who don't want to be publicly associated with a controversial issue.  The article quotes the president of a special interest group as noting:

"They are using the public-disclosure laws to punish people for participating in the democratic process — a core right."

As the Internet brings the prospect of a more transparent government, this state and other governments will face new questions about privacy and fairness that weren't implicated when most public access was to pieces of paper. 

Transparent government or Translucent government?

As governments put more and more information on the web, governments should be focused on how to make that information usable to help the public understand how it relates the decision-making process.  As noted in this post, Transparent or Translucent, simply loading data onto websites can serve to obscure how governments make decisions  rather than give the public access to how and why those decisions are made.  This can result in translucent government, not transparent government. 

 

Guidance from Down Under on Government Use of Web 2.0 Sites

Australia has some of the most sophisticated and advanced laws on document retention and access. Therefore, it was not surprising to find this guidance on records retentions issues for government web 2.0 sites coming from the Australian government:  Records Management and Web 2.0

 

"Lauderdale city attorney tells politicians: Stay off Facebook"

Update 7/12/09

Here is another article from Florida on whether governments should use web 2.0 sites:
"Attorneys, legislators to pull plug on Marco government’s use of social Web sites? Increased accessibility to candidates and officials, public records concerns among the pros and cons being considered in use of Facebook, Twitter"

Update 7/7/09

Spies should also stay off Facebook:  "British spy chief outed on wife's Facebook page

Update 6/2

Apparently Judges should stay off Facebook too.  Here's an article about a Judge who was reprimanded after accessing a litigant's Facebook site. 

Original Post  5/18

As the benefits of Web 2.0 personalized communication -- like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter -- become more apparent, public agencies and politicians are quickly looking to these tools to communicate with the public. Several Washington State agencies, including the Secretary of State and Attorney General (links Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at the bottom of the AG's homepage) use Web 2.0 sites such as Facebook.  Here's a PowerPoint presentation from the Secretary of State's office explaining the benefits of Web 2.0 sites. 

Use of Web 2.0 sites is not without risk, however.  As highlighted in this article about the advice of a city attorney in Florida to his city council -- stay off Facebook, there are concerns about whether the use of such sites affects a government's ability to comply with public records, records retention and open public meetings laws.  The city featured in the article concludes:

It is a simple fact that the state of the law is lagging woefully behind the state of the art in communications technology. This presents unique challenges in following the intent and the letter of these laws regulating public meetings and communications of local government.  For this reason, this office discourages the City’s participation in a Facebook page or any similar interactive communication technology. 

Earlier this year the Obama administration highlighted some other issues with the "terms of service" users of YouTube and other Web 2.0 sites, such as one-sided reimbursement clauses and sites' use of cookies to track visitors.  Both were inconsistent with federal law or federal policy. 

Here is an article reviewing the use of Web 2.0 products by governments throughout the country.

Should Elected Officials Use Blogs and Web 2.0 Sites?

As I have previously noted, a little while back I asked Tim Ford, the AG's Open Government Ombudsman, about some of the legal issues related to the use of blogs and Web 2.0 sites. 

Here is his email response (my questions are in black, his responses in red).  Essentially, Ford states that the content is the public record, not the "look and feel" version that actually would appear on the Web 2.0 site.  This addresses my biggest concern. 

And here is Russell Wood's response to the retention issues.  Again, Wood states that it is the content that is subject to retention (this is an edited version of the email).

The one remaining open issue is whether an elected official's personal blog becomes a public record if the official discussions agency business.  Agencies also have to use extreme caution if they accept comments to ensure that comments are not edited or removed in a way that would violate the First Amendment.  A clear policy is essential for this purpose. 

Here is Olympian reporter Brad Shannon's blog post on the topic.

Here are my earlier posts on the topic:

"To Blog or Not to Blog -- that is the question"

"Lauderdale city attorney tells politicians: Stay off Facebook"

 

 

"Please destroy after reading" -- FOIA case demonstates that emails are forever

When the U.S. Forest Service was considering whether to fire whistle-blower Glen Ith back in 2007, its ethics chief was keenly aware that his emails on the topic were public records, subject to discover.  His solution?  Instruct all recipients to destroy the emails:

This information is for your eyes only.  Please destroy after reading.  It's not protected by privilege and is subject to discovery.

Melvin Y. Shibuya
Chief, Labor/Employee Relations Branch

He repeated similar warnings in subsequent emails. 

Here is a link to an article that includes these excerpts from those emails.

Justice has prevailed, at least sort of.  Mr. Ith died of a heart attack while on administrative leave, after his job was "downsized" but his widow was recently awarded all of her litigation cost.  

Release a Public Record, Get Sued for Violating Federal Law

As AmLaw Daily reports, disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has filed suit against the telecom company that stored his infamous text messages that were deemed to be public records and directly lead to the former mayor spending 99 days in jail for perjury. 

This lawsuit follows a Ninth Circuit decision upholding a civil rights lawsuit by a police officer who sued the city he worked for after his text messages sent from his city-issued phone were released, even though the text messages were "public records."  Quon v. Arch Wireless, 529 F.3d 892 (9th Cir. 2008). 

The key fact in the Quon case was that the City had created a reasonable expectation of privacy by failing to monitor text messages or limit personal use.  If a public agency allows the personal use of text messages, or even emails, the agency must make sure employees know those messages will be monitored to ensure the employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those messages.