A recent case decided by Division II of the Washington State Court of Appeals confirms that agencies must receive fair notice of a request for public records. In other words, a request must have sufficient clarity to be recognizable as a request for information under the Public Records Act. The Court also determined that a union representative had adequate standing to file a public records lawsuit on behalf of a union member.
In Germeau v. Mason County, Case No. 41293-4-II, 2012 WL 621468 (Feb. 28, 2012), Richard Germeau, a representative of the Sherriff’s Office Employees Guild (“Guild”), commenced representation of Guild member Detective Sergeant Martin Borcherding, who had been involved in an off-duty domestic dispute.
Germeau was an experienced public records requestor, having made several past requests using the official Mason County Public Records Request Form. Despite his familiarity with the form, Germeau instead drafted a letter to the Sherriff’s Office seeking information and documents pertaining to any pending investigation of Borcherding. The letter did not specify that it was a public records request, and instead emphasized that Germeau, on behalf of the Guild, would be representing Borcherding during the internal investigative and discipline processes.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond in writing and did not produce documents in response to Germeau’s letter. Several months later, after receiving records from other sources, Germeau believed his original request to the Sherriff’s Office had been ignored, and he had not received all pertinent records. Germeau then filed a complaint against the Sherriff’s Office and the County alleging violations of the PRA.
First, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s finding that Germeau lacked standing to bring the PRA action against the County. The Court of Appeals held that Germeau, as a representative the Guild, had a sufficient “personal stake” in the outcome of the suit to have standing on behalf of the Guild members he represents.
However, Germeau’s victory was short lived, as the Court ultimately upheld the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. The Court found that Germeau had failed to provide fair notice of a PRA request, and that nothing in the August letter put the County on notice that Germeau was requesting records under the PRA. Instead, the letter appeared to request documents in connection with the Sherriff’s Office’s internal investigation of Borcherding under the Guild’s collective bargaining agreement, not the PRA. Consequently, the Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment for the County and Sherriff’s Office, finding that the agencies had not violated the PRA.
This case provides several helpful takeaways for both agencies and requestors:
- Just as an attorney may have standing to bring a PRA claim on behalf of a client, similarly a union representative or the union itself has a sufficient standing to bring a PRA claim on behalf of a union member.
- While the fair notice rule doesn’t require a requestor to specifically cite to the PRA, the language of the request must be sufficiently clear so that the agency understands that a request for public records has been made.
- For requestors: Clearly state that your correspondence is a request for public records. Whenever possible, use an agency’s official public records request form.
- For agencies: Seek clarification from requestors if there is uncertainty about whether correspondence might be a request for public records.