In Bichindaritz v. University of Washington, Division One of the Court of Appeals reversed a $723,290.50 penalty and $102,958.03 attorney fee award for violations of the Public Records Act by the University of Washington. The trial court had concluded that the University’s production of documents to the requestor, a former employee who had sued the University, was not in good faith and that the University waited too long to produce records it had already assembled but had not yet reviewed. The University appealed.
In particular, the University challenged the trial court’s conclusion that as soon as the University had assembled the responsive documents, they were ready to be produced to the requestor. The Court of Appeals agreed with the University, explaining that the Public Records Act requires that responses to records requests be made “promptly,” but also expressly recognizes that an agency may need additional time to determine whether any part of the information requested is exempt. See RCW 42.56.520. As the court summarized:
By the time Bichindaritz closed her 2009 request in February 2011, the University had assembled about 25,000 pages but had reviewed only about half of them for exemptions. It was unreasonable to expect the University to produce the remaining 12,000 pages the same day Bichindaritz reopened her request simply because it had already assembled those documents.
Opinion at 7 (emphasis in original).
The Court of Appeals also rejected the requestor’s argument that the University’s violation could be sustained on the basis that the University “repeatedly missed production deadlines.” The court observed that the Public Records Act demands only that an agency provide reasonable estimates for production—not necessarily that an agency comply with its own self-imposed deadlines. “The question is whether the agency ‘was acting diligently in responding to the request in a reasonable and thorough manner.’” Opinion at 9 (citing the recent decision in Hobbs v. State). Here, the requestor did not argue – and the record did not indicate – that the University was less than diligent in completing its review and redaction of the final records for production. Concluding that the University had not violated the Public Records Act, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s imposition of penalties and attorney fees.