The Washington State Sunshine Committee makes recommendations to the Washington Legislature to repeal or amend exemptions to disclosure under the state’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW. Earlier this week, the Committee released its 2016 Annual Report. The report summarizes committee discussions regarding the exemptions reviewed in 2016 and attaches five recommended amendments (at Report Exhibits A-E) to the Public Records Act and related statutes.
Kevin Anderson, a noncustodial parent, sought child support records from the Department of Social and Health Services, Division of Child Support (DCS). Dissatisfied with DCS’s response partially denying his request, he sued under the Washington Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA). On November 15, 2016, a Washington Court of Appeals rejected Anderson’s claims.
Child support records may be subject to public disclosure, but foremost the records are “private and confidential.” RCW 26.23.120(1). Records may only be disclosed “under appropriate circumstances” as authorized in the statute. RCW 26.23.120(2). Here, DCS provided records and information about Anderson’s own child support case, but redacted information about the mother and child. The Court held that DCS’s disclosures to Anderson, with redactions, were appropriate. The law limiting disclosure of child support records was an “other statute” under the PRA and therefore a proper basis for the redactions. The Court also referred to the Legislature’s direction that juvenile justice records “shall be confidential and shall be released only” under specific statutory authority. See RCW 13.50.100(2).
The Court further held that emails between the DCS support enforcement officer and the prosecuting attorney’s office were protected as attorney-client communications, and were properly withheld from disclosure. The case is Anderson v. Department of Social and Health Services.
The Washington State Court of Appeals recently held that the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, do not afford an individual privacy interest in public records contained in an elected official’s private email account.
Arthur West submitted a public records request to the City of Puyallup for communications received or posted through City Council Member Steve Vermillion’s private website and email account that related to matters of City governance. Vermillion had used the account during his election campaign and occasionally received emails from constituents and the City, which he forwarded to his City account when an official response was warranted. In response to the request, Vermillion and the City declined to provide records located in Vermillion’s private email account. West sued to compel disclosure under the Public Records Act. West v. Vermillion, No. 48601-6-II (Wash Ct. App., Nov. 8, 2016. The Superior Court ruled in favor of West and ordered Vermillion, under penalty of perjury, to produce records within the scope of the request.
The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has updated its online Open Government Resource Manual, available on the Attorney General’s Open Government web page here. The 2016 edition updates the 2015 manual and includes:
- A new table of contents
- Information about several 2016 statutes and court decisions
The Open Government Resource Manual describes the state’s Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act and includes summaries of and links to relevant statutes, court decisions, formal Attorney General Opinions, Public Records Act Model Rules and other materials.
The California Court of Appeals has upheld a Napa County court decision finding that a child pornographer had no reasonable expectation of privacy in files that were publically-accessible, despite his having taken measures to obfuscate them.
After the trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence, defendant Richard Evensen pleaded guilty to various sex crimes. This evidence had been obtained through software tools known as “RoundUp” that targets peer-to-peer-file-sharing networks to identify Internet Protocol (“IP”) addresses associated with known digital files of child pornography. RoundUp is only available to law enforcement officials. A public website identified one such IP address to be registered with Comcast, which, upon execution of a search warrant, revealed the subscriber of the IP address to be Evensen’s mother. A second search warrant was then executed, leading to further inculpatory evidence. Upon Evensen’s arrest, further evidence of wrongdoing was also found.
The Washington Supreme Court has held that a one-year statute of limitations applies when an agency responds that it does not have records responsive to a public records act request. But, the Court also acknowledged that “equitable tolling” could apply under appropriate facts. Belenski v. Jefferson County, No. 92161-0 (September 1, 2016). Belenski sued Jefferson County more than two years after the county responded that it had no records responsive to Belenski’s request for the county’s Internet access logs. An intermediate Court of Appeals dismissed Belenski’s Public Records Act (“PRA”) claim as time-barred under the state’s two-year “catch-all” statute of limitations in RCW 4.16.130; but did not decide whether the PRA’s shorter, one-year statute of limitations in RCW 42.56.550(6) would apply. On subsequent review, the Supreme Court concluded that the PRA’s one-year statute of limitations applied.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court observed that a tension had developed in the appellate divisions over the appropriate starting point for the statute of limitations when an agency’s response does not fall strictly within the two types of responses listed in RCW 42.56.550(6) (an agency’s claim of exemption or the last production of records on an installment basis). Read more here. The Court rejected a narrow reading of the statute:
A prisoner at the Washington State Coyote Ridge Corrections Center requested a document that the state could not find. The prisoner sued. A Washington appellate court on August 18, 2016 ruled that the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) did not subject a government to liability for lost records – or, even impose a burden to prove when the document was lost. Jones v. Dep’t of Corr. The court recognized that the PRA does not allow an agency to destroy records subject to a pending request. But, the court acknowledged that an “agency is not required to produce a document that does not exist.” There was no evidence that the Department unlawfully destroyed the requested form. And, the court pointed to federal court rulings finding a “government agency in compliance with the freedom of information act when it performed a reasonable search despite evidence that some requested records were accidently lost.” While an unpublished opinion, the case is useful in recognizing that the PRA “is not intended to penalize inadvertent loss, a phenomenon endemic to a large organization.”
Plaintiff Arthur West filed suit under Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act, ch. 42.30 RCW (“OPMA”), against the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma for excluding West and the public from a series of meetings held between the two ports in 2014. In West v. Seattle Port Commission, et al., No. 73014-2-I (July 5, 2016), the Washington Court of Appeals held that West had standing to pursue his claims under the OPMA, but also held that the Federal Shipping Act of 1984, 46 U.S.C. §§ 40101-41309, preempted application of the OPMA to the ports’ meetings. The Court therefore affirmed dismissal of West’s claims.
Standing Under the OPMA
In holding that West had standing to bring suit, the Court first emphasized that the standing requirements in the OPMA are very broad, allowing “[a]ny person” to bring an enforcement action for violation of the Act. See RCW 42.30.120, .130. It also rejected application of federal standing requirements in this context, explaining that federal case law on standing does not automatically apply to Washington courts interpreting Washington law. The Court of Appeals concluded that the ports had failed to show that West lacked standing in this case.
Washington State’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) has new penalty provisions that take effect today. Previously, a person who knowingly violated the OPMA was subject to personal liability in the form of a $100 civil penalty. RCW 42.30.120. Under the legislature’s 2016 amendments, the penalty has increased to $500 for a first violation and $1000 for any subsequent violation.
The Washington State Office of the Attorney General has issued new guidance on the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), Chapter 42.30 RCW. The publication addresses frequently asked questions about boards, commissions, and other public agencies subject to the OPMA that appoint or hire persons for their agencies, such as filling a board vacancy or hiring an executive director.
Click here to view a copy of “Open Public Meetings Act Guidance On Frequently Asked Questions About Processes To Fill Vacant Positions By Public Agency Governing Boards (And Some Suggested Practice Tips)” (June 1, 2016).
The FAQ also refers to the 2016 amendments to the OPMA increasing civil penalties for knowing violations, effective June 9, 2016 (see FAQ Question #15).