PRA Initial Response Requires Reasonable Estimate Of When Records may be Provided

A Washington court of appeals ruled that the City of Lynnwood violated the Washington Public Records Act (“PRA”) when it failed to provide “any reasonable estimate when records would be provided” in its initial response to a broad records request. Hikel v. City of Lynnwood, No. 74536-1-I (Dec. 27, 2016).

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s rejection of other PRA claims by a former City Councilmember, represented in the case by the City’s former mayor. The trial court had earlier rejected all of the claims.

But the appellate court found that, despite the City’s efforts to comply with the PRA, the initial response to the request did not satisfy RCW 42.56.520. That provision requires a response within five business days of receipt of the request. If the agency needs additional time, it must acknowledge the request and include “a reasonable estimate of the time the agency...will require to respond.” RCW 42.56.520(3). A reasonable estimate of the time needed to provide a first installment of records has been found compliant. Opinion at p. 10 (citing Hobbs v. Wash. State Auditor’s Office, 183 Wn. App. 925, 943, 335 P.3d 1004 (2014)).

The City’s initial response had asked for clarification due to the large volume of responsive records and advised that it would provide an estimate after it received clarification from the requester. The City then provided its estimate 11 days later. The appellate court held that the City’s initial response was a procedural violation of the PRA. The City was not liable for penalties, but it was subject to an attorney fee claim as to that single violation.

Public records officers will use this case as a further check to be added to the already-long checklist to assure PRA compliance.

City Investigation of Law Enforcement Whistleblower Allegations Subject to Disclosure; No Redaction of Witness Identification

In early 2011, City of Fife police officers submitted a whistleblower complaint to the City Manager.  The complaint covered a range of topics including discrimination, misappropriation of public funds and improper workplace relationships.  The City retained an outside entity to investigate the allegations.  The City determined the investigation was thorough and the allegations were either not sustained or unfounded.  One of the complaining officers submitted a public records request for the report, audio recordings and transcripts of interviews, and other records relating to the whistleblower complaint and investigation.  The City began producing installments in May 2012, but redacted names and identifying information of witnesses, the accused officers, and complaining parties.  The City also commenced an action for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding its obligations to produce records. 

On February 24, 2015, the Washington State Court of Appeals determined that while the City’s records were “specific investigative records,” and might qualify for a public records exemption, that was only a part of the test.  City of Fife v. Hicks, (Division II, No. 45450-5).  The Court held that the City was unable to demonstrate non-disclosure was essential to effective law enforcement.  The Court pointed to earlier precedent that expressly rejected the concept that a “generalized fear that disclosure of witness names will chill cooperation within investigations,” citing Sargent v. Seattle Police Department, 179 Wn.2d 376, 395 (2013) (generalized fear, alone, insufficient to justify non-disclosure). In the Fife case, the Court also rejected the City’s claim that disclosure of witnesses would violate a witness’s right to privacy.  This was particularly the case here where dealing with public employees whose conduct is a matter of greater interest to the public.  Additionally, the City could point to no foundation that the requester’s own name could be redacted from a record requested by that person.  While this case may not present substantially new information for agencies complying with the Washington Public Records Act, it does emphasize the need to manage investigations in a manner attentive to future Public Records Act responsibilities.

Washington Supreme Court Orders Attorney Fees And Costs To Requester For Agency's Violation Of PRA's "Brief Explanation" Requirement

The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that when an agency withholds or redacts records, its response “shall include a statement of the specific exemption authorizing the withholding of the record (or part) and a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record withheld.”  RCW 42.56.210(3).  In a 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held in City of Lakewood v. Koenig that an agency’s violation of this requirement entitles the requester to attorney fees and costs, regardless of whether the records were properly withheld.

In this case, David Koenig had requested records from the City of Lakewood relating to certain police officer incidents.  In its response, the city redacted, among other things, driver’s license numbers from the records, citing to various statutory provisions without additional explanation.  In a majority opinion written by Justice Steven González, the court found that the city’s response violated the PRA because the city either failed to cite a specific exemption or failed to explain how the particular statute applied to the redacted driver’s license numbers in the specific records produced.  As a result, “the burden was shifted to the requester to sift through the statutes cited by the city and parse out possible exemption claims.”  Opinion at 7-8.  Because the PRA provides that costs and reasonable attorney fees shall be awarded to a requester for vindicating “the right to receive a response,” the court held that Koenig was entitled to his attorney fees and costs, including those on appeal.  Id. at 10-12. 

In explaining its decision, the court observed that the level of detail an agency needs to provide will depend on both the nature of the exemption and the nature of the document or information.  For example, if it is clear on the face of a record what type of information has been redacted and that this type of information is categorically exempt, citing to a specific statutory provision may be sufficient.  But for other exemptions, including the “other” statute exemptions that the city cited, “additional explanation is necessary to determine whether the exemption is properly invoked.”  Id. at 8.

In a dissenting opinion joined by three other justices, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen asserted that the majority’s decision imposed an additional burden on agencies to provide enough explanation to prove its claimed exemptions are correct, which the PRA does not require.  The dissent distinguished the facts in Sanders v. State, 169 Wn.2d 827 (2010), observing that, here, “the city explained what information it actually withheld—driver’s license numbers—and it explained why—the cited statutes.”  Dissenting Opinion at 2.  While the dissent acknowledged that attorney fees may be warranted if an agency fails to identify a record or give its reason for withholding, the dissent would have held that attorney fees are not independently warranted if the agency has identified the record and given its reason for redacting or withholding the record.