Recent PRA Litigation Missteps: Abandoned Claims, False Starts

By Milt Rowland and Lee Marchisio

Abandoned Claims.  In West v. Gregoire, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that a PRA requestor who moves for a show cause order under RCW 42.56.550(1) abandons any claims he or she does not either (1) address in briefing, (2) mention in oral argument, or (3) otherwise specifically preserve for judicial review.  Arthur West submitted a public records request to Governor Gregoire’s office.  After providing West an initial five‑day letter, the Governor’s office did not further communicate for several months.  And when it did, it asserted executive privilege (which was later upheld in Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire).  West sued, claiming that executive privilege should not be recognized in Washington. 

Some months later, West brought a show cause motion, but failed to mention in the motion or at oral argument his other PRA claims (notably, his claim that the Governor’s initial delay in production was unreasonable).  Citing the detailed show cause procedures under RCW 42.56.550(1) and the public policies in favor of judicial economy and against piecemeal litigation, the court held that a .550(1) show cause hearing can function as a PRA claimant’s trial.  Any PRA issue not mentioned or otherwise expressly preserved in a .550(1) show cause motion is abandoned, just like any civil claimant’s allegation not mentioned in the pleadings, not raised in response to a summary judgment motion, or unsupported at trial, is deemed abandoned. 

A PRA claimant does not have to proceed by a .550(1) show cause motion, however, and can instead proceed to trial under the Civil Rules.  But if the party does file a show cause motion, it must either assert every PRA issue on that motion or otherwise preserve the issue expressly.  If not, the issue is abandoned.

False Starts.  In Hobbs v. Washington State Auditor’s Office, also before Division II, the Court of Appeals held that a records requestor may initiate a lawsuit under the PRA only after it reasonably appears that the agency will not provide records responsive to the request.  Here, the requestor sought “a large amount of technical information” related to an Auditor’s whistleblower investigation.  The Auditor’s five‑day letter indicated that the office would provide records in installments.  Two days after the Auditor provided the first installment, the requestor sued for alleged PRA violations.  In the meantime, the Auditor’s office continued to search for and produce responsive records in rolling installments, including by correcting errors in its initial productions.  Eventually, the Auditor’s office produced all responsive documents and cured all alleged violations. 

Because the suit was filed during an open request that was eventually fulfilled in compliance with the PRA, the Court held that the Auditor’s office did not improperly withhold records.  The Court also held that an agency does not violate the PRA if it makes every reasonable effort to comply with a PRA request and also fully cures alleged PRA violations while the request remains open.  Accordingly, the Auditor’s office did not violate the PRA by improperly disclosing certain documents in its initial installments because it later corrected those errors before closing out the request. 

In its final notable holding, the Court also made clear that the PRA does not require an agency to provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fully respond to a request.  Instead, if an agency notifies the requestor that it will provide records on an installment basis, it need only provide in its five‑day response letter the agency’s reasonable estimate of the time it will take to produce the first installment.  

Case Law Update: "fullest assistance," redactions for effective law enforcement, disclosure of non-agency phone logs

The Washington Court of Appeals issued three notable Public Records Act decisions in the past few days.  In Andrews v. Washington State Patrol, Division III held that an agency that fails to comply with self‑imposed disclosure deadlines does not violate the PRA if the agency acts diligently to produce the requested records.  The specific records request was complex, seeking audio recordings of third‑party telephone conversations protected by attorney‑client privilege.  In order to preserve confidentiality, the State Patrol developed a method to identify responsive records from over six months of recordings without actually listening to the recorded conversations.  In the process, the State Patrol missed self‑imposed disclosure deadline estimates without notifying the requestor that it needed additional time to compile the records.  Facing 1,000 additional public records requests at the time, the Patrol ultimately disclosed the records in less than 90 days.  The Court held that the PRA’s requirement that agencies provide a “reasonable” estimated response date is not a requirement for an “exact” estimate and that the Patrol’s failure to meet its self‑imposed deadlines or to notify the requestor that additional time was needed did not violate the PRA’s “fullest assistance” provision. 

In Haines‑Marchel v. Department of Corrections, the requestor sought internal investigation documents from the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.  Relying on those documents, prison officials placed an inmate on “dry cell watch” in order to monitor the inmate for suspected contraband.  The documents detailed allegations by three separate named inmate informants.  Citing an exemption for sensitive information contained in law enforcement records, RCW 42.56.240(1), the Department released the documents but redacted the informants’ names and identifying numbers, the details of their allegations, and all information about their reliability as informants.  Division II of the Court of Appeals agreed with these redactions, holding that releasing this investigative record information would undermine effective law enforcement at correction centers.  Informants identified in the documents could be subject to retaliation and future informants would be “chilled” against providing information to Department officials.  Similarly, the Department properly redacted pre‑printed material in the documents because those materials detailed the Department’s methods of investigation.  Releasing this intelligence information would aid inmates in crafting and disguising false or deceptive accusations.  However, the Court also held that other information was improperly redacted.  The accused inmate’s name and assigned number, the specific rule he allegedly violated, and the investigating officer’s signature in the documents were not similarly exempt. 

Last week in Nissen v. Pierce County, Division II held that text messages sent and received from a government employee’s private cell phone are public records if they relate to government business.  Similarly, portions of call logs that track a government employee’s private, non‑agency cell phone could be public records for those calls that relate to government business.  The more difficult question was whether the agency “prepared, owned, used or retained” the phone logs.  Unlike the text messages, which were prepared and used by the employee as a government official, the cell phone logs were created by a private cellular provider and delivered to the employee in his private capacity.  Accordingly, the call logs might not be “used” or “retained” by the agency even though the phone itself was used for government purposes.  The Court remanded for the trial court to determine this question after developing the record.  Arguably, the Court avoided a fundamental issue that could have been resolved as a matter of law: “we do not reach the question of whether [the employee’s] personal cellular phone call logs became ‘public records’ when he delivered them to the prosecutor’s office for the agency to redact.”  

 

Court Of Appeals Determines That Public Records Act Exemption For Proprietary Information Obtained By Public Agencies Can Be Asserted By Private Parties

In Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd, LLP v. State, Division II of the Court of Appeals decided that private parties may assert the Public Records Act exemption in RCW 42.56.270(1) for certain financial, commercial, and proprietary information obtained by public agencies. Private parties may also assert that disclosure would produce a public loss, regardless of the agency’s position on the issue. However, the court declined to address the open question in Washington of the proper standard for an injunction based on an “other statute” exemption under RCW 42.56.070(1).

The law firm of Robbins, Geller, Rudman & Dowd sought to enjoin release of information that the firm submitted to the Washington Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) as part of its response to a request for qualifications. Although the Court of Appeals held that the law firm could assert the proprietary information exemption under RCW 42.56.270(1), it reversed the trial court’s decision to issue a permanent injunction, finding that the law firm failed to prove that the exemption, or any other exemption, prevented disclosure of the information at issue in response to a public records request.

The court first addressed exemption under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), Ch. 19.108 RCW. In rejecting application of that exemption, the court held that the law firm failed to show that its fee proposal and insurance information differed significantly from information already in the public arena. The court also held that the firm had not demonstrated any reasonable attempts to keep previously published client information secret and that its reference lists, by their very nature, were created for dissemination outside the firm. Accordingly, the UTSA did not prevent disclosure.

Notably, the court declined to address the undecided issue of whether the PRA injunction standard, RCW 42.56.540, applies when a court relies on an “other statute” exemption, such as the UTSA, rather than a PRA exemption to bar disclosure. The AGO and the law firm argued that such “other statutes” provide independent bases for enjoining disclosure without consideration of the PRA’s injunction requirements. The requestor of the records and amici curiae argued that the PRA injunction standard must be satisfied, even for exemptions pursuant to “other statutes.” Although the parties urged the court to provide guidance, the court declined to address the issue because the UTSA did not exempt the materials at issue.

The court also rejected the law firm’s asserted PRA exemptions. The court largely focused on the proprietary information exemption under RCW 42.56.270, which exempts from disclosure “[v]aluable formulae, designs, drawings, computer source code or object code, and research data obtained by any agency within five years of the request for disclosure when disclosure would produce private gain and public loss.” RCW 42.56.270(1). As a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeals rejected the requestor’s argument that a private party cannot invoke the exemption or assert a public loss. First, nothing in the statute restricted its application to public agencies, and unrestricted application was not inconsistent with the purpose of exemption. Second, because the PRA expressly allows interested parties to seek an injunction to prevent disclosure of exempt public records, private parties can assert public loss, even if the public agency chooses not to do so.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals held that the law firm failed to establish public loss under the exemption. Because the firm also could not establish any other exemption under the PRA for the information sought, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s permanent injunction as to those records. However, the court declined to award penalties, costs, or attorney’s fees to the requestor because the AGO did not wrongfully withhold the records; it withheld the records pursuant to a court order. Thus, the requestor did not “prevail” against the agency under RCW 42.56.550(4).

Anti-SLAPP Statute Held Inapplicable to PRA Injunction Actions that Do Not Primarily Seek to Limit Protected Activities

In a much‑anticipated Public Records Act case, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division I, held in Egan v. City of Seattle that PRA requests do not constitute constitutionally protected speech subject to the protections of the state’s anti‑SLAPP statute. 

James Egan submitted a Public Records Act request for certain internal investigation records, including 36 “dash‑cam” videos, from the Seattle Police Department. The City of Seattle withheld 35 of those videos, claiming that a specific provision of the state’s privacy statute (RCW 9.73.090(1)(c)) prohibited the City from releasing the videos until final disposition of a pending lawsuit arising from the recorded events. 

Egan disputed that the exemption applied and threatened to sue. Under the PRA’s injunction statute, RCW 42.56.540, the City moved to enjoin release of the videos and for declaratory judgment that the records were exempt from disclosure. Egan then filed a motion to strike under Washington’s anti‑SLAPP statute, RCW 4.24.525, arguing that the City sought to chill his right to public participation and petition with its injunction action. 

The anti‑SLAPP statute helps to protect a defendant’s exercise of First Amendment rights by providing a damages remedy for retaliatory litigation, otherwise known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” In order to prevail on an anti‑SLAPP motion, a defendant must first establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the claim is based on an action involving public participation or petition. Egan argued that the anti‑SLAPP statute applied because the City moved to enjoin Egan’s PRA request based on his “threat” to sue. 

The Court disagreed. The right to access public records is purely statutory. It is not granted by the state or federal constitutions or compelled by the First Amendment. Here, the City’s injunction action was not based on Egan’s threat to sue (protected speech), but instead it was based on the parties’ underlying controversy about whether the privacy statute applied as an exemption to Egan’s PRA request. Because the purpose of City’s injunction action was to determine an underlying controversy, as opposed to suppressing Egan’s right to sue under the PRA, the Court held that the anti‑SLAPP statute did not apply.  

Failure to Conduct a Reasonable Search Supports a Finding of Bad Faith Under the PRA

In Francis v. Washington State Department of Corrections, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that the Department acted in bad faith by not conducting a reasonable search in response to an inmate public records request, awarding both penalties and costs.  This is the second time in the past month that Division II has addressed the 2011 amendments to RCW 42.56.565, which now prohibits an award of PRA penalties to an inmate unless the responding agency acted in bad faith.  See Gronquist v. Dep’t of Corrections (Oct. 29, 2013).

Unlike Gronquist, however, here the court found that DOC acted in bad faith.  In particular, the court noted (1) a delayed response by the agency, (2) lack of strict compliance with PRA procedural requirements, (3) lack of proper training and supervision, (4) negligence or gross negligence, and (5) sufficient clarity in Francis’s request. In responding to the request, DOC spent no more than 15 minutes searching for the documents, which the court described as “almost a rubber-stamp situation.”  Despite these findings, the court also found no recklessness or intentional noncompliance, no intentional hiding or misrepresentation, and no deceit on DOC’s part.

DOC’s primary argument was that bad faith, which is not defined in the PRA, requires some intentional, wrongful act.  The court disagreed.  After reviewing PRA and non-PRA cases discussing bad faith,  as well as federal FOIA cases, the court determined that DOC’s proposed standard was untenable.  The court also looked to legislative intent and the underlying purposes of the PRA in concluding that bad faith should be given a broader reading. While bad faith would not apply where an agency simply made a mistake in a record search or followed a legal position that is subsequently reversed, it would be liable if it failed “to carry out a record search consistently with its proper policies and within the broad canopy of reasonableness.”  

After the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s determination of bad faith and its award of $4,495 in penalties, the court reversed the trial court’s refusal to award costs.  Explaining that RCW 42.56.550(4) is a mandatory cost-shifting provision, the court held that Francis should have been awarded his costs as the prevailing party.  The court also awarded Francis his costs on appeal.

Constitutional Separation of Powers Protects Gubernatorial Decision Making

In Freedom Foundation v. Gregoire, the Washington State Supreme Court holds that separation of powers in the State Constitution creates a qualified executive privilege to protect certain gubernatorial deliberations.

Although Washington’s Constitution does not contain a formal separation of powers provision, the Court recognizes the doctrine based on the State’s multi-branch form of government. One branch will violate separation of powers if its activity “threatens the independence or integrity or invades the prerogatives of another.” Executive privilege preserves the integrity of the executive branch by protecting the chief executive’s access to candid advice and robust decision making.

But, the privilege is not unlimited. It extends only to communications made to inform policy choices that are authored or solicited by the governor or by gubernatorial aids with significant responsibility for formulating policy advice for the governor.

In order to assert the privilege, the governor must provide a privilege log that lists the documents sought to be protected, the author, the recipient, and a description of the document’s subject matter. Once the governor provides a sufficient privilege log, the communications are presumptively privileged. In order to overcome the privilege, the requestor must assert a particularized need for the requested materials. Only after the requestor demonstrates particularized need will a trial court determine whether that need outweighs the public interest served by protecting gubernatorial deliberations.

Here, Governor Gregoire asserted the privilege over five documents and part of a sixth document in response to a request by Freedom Foundation. Because Freedom Foundation refused to assert a specific need for the requested documents, the Court held that it could not compel the governor to disclose those documents.

The Record Counts: Properly Asserting and Explaining PRA Exemptions Before and During Litigation

In Gronquist v. Washington State Department of Licensing, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II, held that the Department of Licensing improperly redacted several items from a business license application prior to disclosure. Citing RCW 42.56.070(1), Licensing argued that the home address, home telephone number, business telephone number, income information, employee information, banking information, and marital status information from a business license application were all exempt from disclosure under three “other statutes” incorporated into the PRA, among other exemptions.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. First, the redacted information was not protected tax information under Department of Revenue statutes. RCW 82.32.330 (return or tax information) did not apply to the redacted information because the statue, in fact, authorizes Revenue to disclose “tax information that is maintained by another Washington state or local governmental agency….” Because Licensing (another agency) held the application, the information was not protected tax information under the Revenue statute. Although the PRA itself also exempts personal tax information collected in connection with an assessment or tax, this exemption did not apply because business license applications do not provide financial information for tax purposes.

Second, Employment Security Department statutes also did not exempt the redacted information. RCW 50.13.020 (employer information or records) did not exempt the applicant’s marital status information because the Employment Security statute exempts only information “obtained by” Employment Security, and the PRA itself limits the scope of this statute to records “maintained by” Employment Security, RCW 42.56.410. Here, Licensing, and not Employment Security, maintained and obtained the business license application. Additionally, the Employment Security statute did not apply because the applicant, operating as a sole proprietorship, was not an “employer.”

Third, under a similar line of reasoning, the Court held that Department of Labor and Industries statutes did not apply. RCW 51.16.070 (employment information) did not exempt information in the application because the applicant was a sole proprietorship, did not have employees, and was not an “employing unit” under the statute.

The Court also held that Licensing failed to provide Gronquist with a proper and timely explanation for its redactions under RCW 42.56.210(3), initially and throughout every stage of litigation. First, Licensing failed to provide any explanation for the redactions in its initial production. Second, the explanation provided by Licensing after Gronquist filed this lawsuit failed to specify what information had been redacted, which exemptions applied to each redaction, or how those exemptions applied. Third, Licensing’s second explanation submitted in connection with in camera review also failed to link specific exemptions to specific redacted items. Finally, on appeal Licensing relied on different exemptions and only sought to explain some of the redactions.

The Court also noted that Licensing took eight business days to respond to Gronquist’s request, making its initial response three days late. Licensing argued that it received Gronquist’s letter on July 31, 2009, that its letter response to Gronquist was dated that same day, and that Gronquist did not controvert these facts in the record. Rejecting these arguments, the Court noted that Licensing submitted a declaration of one of its senior administrators stating that the office received Gronquist’s request “[o]n or about July 21, 2009.”

Although the PRA does not authorize a freestanding penalty for an agency’s failure to provide explanations for withholding records, failure to explain amounts to a “silent withholding” that may aggravate the penalty for wrongfully withholding a record. The Court recommended that these were proper considerations for determining the penalty amount on remand in order to “discourage improper denial of access to public records.”

Under the PRA, Non-Physicians are Peers of Physicians

Responding to complaints about Dr. Cornu-Labat, Quincy Valley Hospital conducted two ad hoc investigations concerning separate allegations of intoxication and incompetency to practice medicine.  The ad hoc investigations failed to uncover enough evidence to substantiate either claim.  However, hospital administrators “remained concerned” for the Doctor, placed him on paid administrative leave, and referred him to the Washington Physicians Health Program.  After Dr. Cornu-Labat refused to visit WPHP, which precluded WPHP from issuing a recommendation on his fitness to practice medicine, the Hospital fired him. 

Dr. Cornu-Labat filed separate Public Records Act requests for documents relating to both investigations.  The Hospital denied the first request, claiming the Hospital was not an agency subject to the PRA and that the records relating to the intoxication investigation were “investigative” and exempt under RCW 42.56.240.  His second, third, and fourth requests sought documents from both investigations, and the Hospital eventually denied those requests under PRA exemptions specific to the healthcare industry. 

The Grant County Superior Court held that the peer review exemption cited by the Hospital did not apply because under RCW 4.24.250 (and RCW 42.56.360) peer review committees must be regularly constituted and consist of professional peers.  The ad hoc investigations here included non-physicians. 

The Washington Supreme Court reversed and held that the plain language of RCW 4.24.250 extended the exemption to committee records of non-physician staff sitting on the committee.  RCW 42.56.360 did not narrow the scope of “peer review committee” for the purposes of exempting records from disclosure under RCW 4.24.250.  Because other peer review statutes allow officers, directors, and employees to sit on review committees, the Hospital’s ad hoc investigations qualified as peer review committees even though non-physicians participated. 

The Court remanded on this issue to determine whether the investigations were a function of regularly constituted committees or whether the investigations were conducted by ad hoc committees not entitled to the exemptions under RCW 4.24.250.  The Court also remanded to determine whether the records sought embodied the proceedings of a formal meeting of the Hospital board (or its staff or agents) concerning the Doctor’s clinical privileges and therefore exempt from disclosure under RCW 70.44.062(1)).  If the records were generated during a general investigation into Dr. Cornu-Labat’s alleged misconduct, then this exemption would not apply. 

Finally, the Court rejected the Hospital’s argument that the confidentiality provision of Dr. Cornu-Labat’s employment contract precluded the Doctor from requesting hospital records involving members of its medical staff.  The Doctor’s identity and his employment contract were irrelevant “because the PRA states that agencies may not inquire into the identity of the requestor or the reason for the request.”  Employment contracts “cannot override the PRA.”  

Production on a "Partial or Installment Basis" Also Means Just One Production

Does a single production constitute production on an installment basis and trigger the PRA’s statute of limitations?  Divisions I and II of the Washington Court of Appeals disagree. 

In Bartz v. Department of Corrections, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that the PRA’s one-year statute of limitations runs even if the agency delivers only one production.  In other words, a single production also means “the last production… on a partial or installment basis.”  A plain reading of the statute might suggest otherwise.  “Actions under this section must be filed within one year of the agency’s claim of exemption or the last production of a record on a partial or installment basis.”  RCW 42.56.550(6). 

Division II reasoned that a literal reading would lead to an absurd result, namely: “a more lenient statute of limitations for one category of PRA requests” after the Legislature shortened the statute from five years to one in 2005. 

Yet, Division I concluded just that.  In Tobin v. Worden, 156 Wn. App. 507 (2010), Division I held that the one-year statute does not apply unless the agency claims an exemption or produces records on installment.  There, the agency did not claim an exemption and produced only a single document.  Because a single production could not be an installment, Division I concluded that the statute did not apply.  

Pace of PRA Legislation Mirrors PRA Requests

As the Legislature hits full stride, open government initiatives and reforms continue to make headlines and receive editorial ink.

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that newly sworn-in Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to reinstate a full time open-government ombudsman in the Attorney General’s Office. The Tribune also notes his support for HB 1198, requiring training for public officials and employees on public records and open meetings.

Citing a potential Gold Bar bankruptcy stemming from public records act requests and lawsuits, public officials lobbied for HB 1128, which allows an agency to seek an injunction against requesters who seek to harass or intimidate the agency or its employees, the Everett Herald reports. The bill also allows agencies to limit employee hours spent compiling responses to PRA requests if those agencies provide several types of records online.

The Olympian offers a different perspective on HB1128. Citing the continuing “assault” on the Public Records Act, the Olympian’s editorial board finds the attempted tradeoff between agency efficiency and openness “unsatisfactory.”

Citing the Public Disclosure Commission’s role as election watchdog, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial board offered its support to Rep. Jim Moeller’s effort bolster PDC funding. HB 1005 would require annual fees from political committees, politicians and lobbyists who file with the PDC. Proponents expect about $600,000 a year in additional revenue for the agency.
 

Gold Bar Meets the Gold Standard of Records Request Response; Still Costs City A Pretty Penny

By 2009, Susan Forbes “and other persons aligned with her” had submitted 82 record requests for various City of Gold Bar public records. Many of those emails were stored on the personal email devices of the mayor, city council members, and other city staff. For over a year, the City corresponded with Ms. Forbes, fulfilling her “purposeful[ly] broad” requests through installments, but also extending its estimated times for response on several occasions. “Unsatisfied” with the delay and the absence of a privilege log outlining withheld documents, Ms. Forbes sued the City claiming the delays were not “reasonable.”

The Washington Court of Appeals, Division 1, provided some vindication for the City, if not relief, upholding a trial court’s summary judgment rejecting Ms. Forbes’ Public Records Act lawsuit. As the Court reiterated, the PRA allows a public agency to respond to a request for public records by providing a reasonable timeframe for response. The agency may fulfill requests in installments as additional requests are assembled to complete broad requests. The superior court may, however, require the agency to show that the estimate was “reasonable” under RCW 42.56.550. By analogy to FOIA and PRA case law on the reasonableness of searches, the Court found that the extensive nature of the requests, resulting in disclosure of 28,290 documents, made delays in production reasonable.

During litigation, Ms. Forbes also requested that the trial court review in camera personal emails that were not produced. The lower court declined because Ms. Forbes “did not have any clear articulation as to why such a review would be appropriate.” Division I affirmed and held that the City’s “clear and consistent record” of adequate searches in reasonable times did not merit in camera review of records not produced. Importantly, the personal emails at issue did not contain city business. The Court distinguished Mechling v. City of Monroe, where personal emails were not exempt because they contained information relating to the conduct of government. Here, no emails containing city business were withheld. Furthermore, because the personal emails were merely non-responsive, they were not withheld, and the City was not required to produce a privilege log.

The cost of responding to the voluminous requests and the related litigation has pushed the City of 2100 people to the brink of bankruptcy. One of the largest expenses (and reasons for delay) was the need to search city officials’ personal electronics and home computers, including sorting personal emails from City business. Better document management practices may not have eliminated Ms. Forbes’ issues, but it could have decreased Gold Bar’s costs.
 

The Little Things Matter: Public Records Suit Dismissed for Failure to Properly Serve County Auditor

In an unpublished opinion, the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a public records suit due to the requester’s failure to properly serve the Pierce County Auditor. The requester, Larry Day, requested records from the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s office relating to its prosecution of Day. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office withheld a number of documents as attorney work product. Day subsequently filed a complaint under the Public Records Act naming the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as the defendant. Day also served a copy of the complaint on the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Day did not serve any other public official or department. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office appeared and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that Day’s service was improper. The trial court agreed and dismissed Day’s suit.

Counties can be sued under Washington law, but to properly serve a county, the plaintiff must serve the County Auditor or the Deputy Auditor. RCW 36.01.010; RCW 4.28.080(1). In contrast, a county department can only be sued if the law creating the department permits such a suit. Roth v. Drainage Improvement Dist. No. 5, 64 Wn. 2d 586, 588 (1964). Pierce County never designated the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office as an entity capable of being sued. Thus, to effectively serve his suit, Day was required to serve the Pierce County Auditor or the Auditor’s Deputy. Day did not and that mistake proved fatal to his suit.

Moreover, because Day failed to re-file and properly serve the Pierce County Auditor after his original suit was dismissed, the Court of Appeals held that the one year statute of limitations under the Public Records Act had run.
 

Washington Supreme Court Requires State Patrol to Disclose Accident Records

The Washington Supreme Court ruled today that the State Patrol cannot evade disclosure of public accident records using a federal statute and separate agreement with the State Department of Transportation.  The decision affirms a 2010 decision from the Court of Appeals, Division II.

The Supreme Court's analysis mirrored that of both the trial court and the Court of Appeals in requiring the State Patrol to disclose requested records related to bike accidents on Seattle's Montlake Bridge.  The State Patrol cannot hide behind a memorandum of understanding with the State Department of Transportation and WSDOT’s federal privilege under 23 U.S.C. §409, barring use of collision data in lawsuits. The federal privilege is intended to allow WSDOT to compile and analyze accident data to better implement highway safety measures funded by the federal government without concern that such analysis would be used to support lawsuits against the State.

Although WSDOT has physical custody of the accident records based on the MOU, they are still State Patrol records and subject to disclosure if the State Patrol cannot show an appropriate exemption. While the State Patrol’s reports do provide information for WSDOT’s federally exempt accident tracking and analysis, WSDOT’s exemption does not bar disclosure because the State Patrol collects its accident information for other non-exempt law enforcement investigation purposes.

In addition, the Supreme Court rejected a new argument from the State that the accident reports are confidential.  The Court distinguished between reports submitted by motorists, which are largely confidential under RCW 46.52.080, and those submitted by law enforcement officers in the course of their duties, like the records at issue here that must be disclosed.

As we have seen frequently over the years, the Washington Supreme Court again construes the Public Records Act in favor of broad disclosure and will not allow agency exemption arguments to prevail unless the record unequivocally falls into a clear exemption.

 

Friday LOG Links - March 9th

 

White House launches www.ethics.gov as one-stop shopping for open government information. [Wall Street Journal]

New York follows suit with Mayor Bloomberg signing a data transparency law that will allow the City to “continue leading the country in innovation and transparency…” with a unified open-data repository that opens for business in just six short years. [Information Week]

The Legislature giveth and the Legislature taketh: Florida legislature requires newly elected governors to preserve email and other records created before they are sworn in. Florida legislature also re-adopts measure providing a two-year disclosure exemption for tax-incentive deals. [Miami Herald] [Orlando Sentinel]

Washington Court of Appeals rules that enough ($$$) is enough, upholding trial court’s calculation of penalties awarded to Public Records Act frequent flier Arthur West. [Washington Court of Appeals]

 

Clarity is Key: Court Confirms Fair Notice Requirement of PRA Requests

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.

Tri-City Herald Reports on Massive Document Production in Response to Request from Annexation Opponent

The ongoing controversy over a City of Pasco annexation authorized by legislation adopted by the State Legislature in 2009 (ESSB 5808), has resulted in broad requests for City public records. The requests are so expansive as to cause substantial delay in production of the public records. This is not an unusual occurrence, as the Public Records Act (PRA) is regularly used as a political tool against public agencies. This approach is completely permissible under Washington law, as a requester need not identify the purpose for the records request. Washington has regularly recognized that the often substantial cost of compliance, even in the face of an unjustified records request, is outweighed by the policy supporting public access to documents. The Legislature and courts have only responded to date with respect to prisoner's suits under the PRA. See January 20, 2011 posting on this blog.

Prison Bars: Washington Court Finds Inmate's Public Records Lawsuit Time-Barred

A Washington State Court of Appeals recently held that an inmate’s public records lawsuit against the State of Washington Department of Corrections (“DOC”) was time-barred, and therefore properly dismissed. Johnson v. Wash. State Dep't of Corrections, Case No.40831-7-II, 2011 WL 5345375 (Wash. Ct. App. Nov. 8, 2011).

Inmate Robert Johnson's claim concerned the DOC’s Extended Family Visiting policy (“EFV”). The EFV policy allows an offender to receive private visits from family. Under early versions of the policy, inmates could participate in the EFV program only if they had a “positive prognosis of release”, that is if they would outlive their sentence. Johnson was ineligible for participation in the EFV program, and filed a complaint in federal district court in 2005. The DOC subsequently changed its policy as of June 8, 2006 (though not as a result of Johnson’s claims), eliminating the “positive prognosis of release” requirement.

In August 2006, Johnson sent a public records request to the DOC’s Public Disclosure Unit requesting information about the EFV policy revision. The DOC advised Johnson that the only responsive record was one email documenting approval of the policy change. Johnson received the record in early September, 2006. Over the next few months, Johnson submitted a duplicative public records request to various DOC Public Disclosure officers seeking the same information identified in his original request. After a series of searches and additional communications with the DOC, the Department sent Johnson a final letter on August 27, 2007, noting that Johnson had already received the sole responsive document, and that his request was considered closed. Over two years later, another requestor, Melinda Carter, sought the same information as Johnson. Carter was provided with nearly 300 pages of documents in response to her request.

In December 2009, Johnson filed a Public Records Act (“PRA”) action to compel production of records that the DOC ostensibly withheld. Johnson contended that the DOC violated the PRA by only disclosing a single email when he had requested all records pertaining to the EFV policy change. He cited Carter’s request and DOC’s 300-page response as evidence to support his claim. The superior court denied Johnson’s motion and dismissed his PRA action. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding Johnson’s arguments were time-barred.

The PRA statute of limitations provides that a plaintiff must file an action within one year of either (1) an agency’s claim of exemption from disclosure requirements, or (2) an agency’s last production of a record on a partial or installment basis. RCW 42.56.550(6). Johnson claimed that the DOC had not produced a last record in this matter, since he had only received a single email. He believed there were many more documents available based on his knowledge of the quantity of documents provided to Carter. On this basis, he argued that the statue of limitations had not been triggered. The Court rejected this argument, finding that some statute of limitations applied – either the one year statute under the PRA, or the more generous two year “catch all” statute of limitations for civil actions. RCW 4.16.130. The latest that Johnson might have received the final DOC letter, dated August 27, 2007, would have been early September of 2007. He filed his request more than two years later, in December 2009. Under either statute of limitation, Johnson’s claim was time-barred.

An important note for both agencies and requestors alike, is that the PRA’s one year statute of limitations applies in narrow circumstances: when an agency has claimed an exemption, or after the last production of a record on a partial or install meant bases. If these two factors are not met, then the one year limitation under the PRA does not apply. The general two year “catch all” statute of limitations under RCW 4.16.130 applies instead. See Tobin v. Worden, 156 Wn. App. 507, 233 P.3d 906 (2010) .

 

 


 

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.
 

Grouping Documents and Lowering Penalties upon Reconsideration is Upheld by the Washington Court of Appeals

Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court’s decision to group documents into two categories, thereby lowering the penalties against the Washington Dept. of Labor and Industries (L&I) from over to $500,000 to approximately $30,000. Bricker v. Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, __ Wn.App. __, 2011 WL 4357760 (September 20, 2011).

Ken Bricker is a former contractor who owned a home at which he did his own electrical work. An L&I inspector issued a citation related to the work. Bricker appealed, and sent a letter to the inspector, in which the Public Records Act (PRA) was not mentioned, asking for “a copy of all permits issued and copies of inspections and correction requests by all inspectors at that residence.” The L&I inspector filed the letter, assuming that the records would be made available during the contested hearing over the citation.

Bricker then made several attempts to obtain the records, including telephone calls to L&I personnel who did not recall the calls. It turned out that there were somewhere between 3 and 16 responsive records. Bricker both overturned the citation and won the PRA trial where he was originally awarded penalties totaling over $500,000.00. But the trial court later reconsidered, and broke the documents into two groups, the original 16 records and 3 other records that were duplicates, except for signatures. The trial court awarded $90/day for the first group and $15/day for the second group, stating that the PRA was about accountability, but absent bad faith, the PRA is not meant as compensation for damages.

Bricker appealed the trial court’s reconsideration, which changed the award from a per-document per-day award to a per-group per-day award, reducing the award to just under $30,000.00 plus attorney fees. L&I cross-appealed the high-end award, claiming out that, absent bad faith and with less culpability that in a prior case in which a $45/day penalty was found appropriate, the high end range (the maximum penalty is $100 per day) was an abuse of discretion.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on both issues.. With respect to the L&I claim that the high per day penalty was error, because there was no bad faith, the Court of Appeals noted that Bricker’s request for documents was clear, the agency made no response even after Bricker followed up on his request, and the L&I inspector had received no PRA training and made no inquiries about how to handle Bricker’s request for information.

On the other hand, in response to Bricker’s appeal, the Court held that it is not an abuse of discretion for a trial court to decline to award penalties for each document per day. Pointing out that other courts, including Yousoufian, had upheld awards based on categories of related documents, this Court approved the trial court’s effort to assess different penalties for different groups of documents, to which (as a group) different Yousoufian factors applied.

Water District Wins Anti-Harassment Order Against Public Records Requestor, But Still Found to Violate Washington Public Records Act

Belfair Water District is a small water district with approximately 1,200 customers located near Bremerton. The District is the latest public agency to face civil penalties for violations of the Washington Public Records Act. Judge rules against Belfair Water District in public records dispute, Steven Gardner, Kitsap Sun, August 6, 2011. The litigated requests began in 2009 when Greg Waggett asked for copies of the District’s insurance policy and current budget.  Around the same time, Bonnie Pope, another requestor, requested copies of District commissioners’ expense reimbursement records. These were apparently the first public record requests handled by District staff.

Following these initial requests, Waggett began submitting increasingly burdensome requests to the District. According to the District, responding to these requests began to take up significant portions of district staff time and, ultimately, became so burdensome that two district employees quit their District jobs.

According to the District, Waggett also began to harass District staff. This harassment led the District Manager, Dave Tipton, to seek an anti-harassment order against Waggett. A court issued an anti-harassment order against Waggett for one year.

A year later, a hearing was held to determine whether the anti-harassment order should be renewed. The judge ultimately declined to renew the order citing the fact that Waggett had not violated the order in the previous year. Following this decision, Waggett’s attorney used the hearing to submit additional public record requests to the District. Waggett’s attorney handed Tipton public record requests in the courtroom and even had the judge acknowledge this in the official hearing record. Tipton would later argue that he never “accepted” these requests.

Following the court hearing, Waggett and Pope sued the water district alleging numerous violations of the Public Records Act (Chapter 42.56 RCW). Waggett and Pope argued that the District summarily denied requests instead of requesting clarifications; refused to accept record requests submitted through certified mail; and failed to respond to the requests submitted to Tipton at the court hearing. In early August, a Mason County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the requestors and found that the District would be liable for the attorneys fees of the requestors and daily civil penalties. The judge will later determine the total amount due from the District.

This case illustrates that public agencies faced with harassing public record requestors may successfully obtain anti-harassment orders (or, declaratory judgments) to protect staff. Anti-harassment orders could prove to be a valuable tool in preventing requestors from interfering with public business. However, agencies should be aware that obtaining an anti-harassment order against a requestor does not relieve the agency’s obligation to respond to otherwise valid requests submitted by the requester. As this case shows, it is entirely possible that an agency can obtain an anti-harassment order against a requestor and still be found in violation of the Public Records Act.
 

WA Court of Appeals Decision in Zink v. City of Mesa Has Many Public Records Act Lessons for Municipalities

By Lee Marchisio with Steve DiJulio

On June 7, 2011, the Washington Court of Appeals remanded (for a second time) Zink v. City of Mesa to the trial court to calculate penalties against the City of Mesa for violating Washington’s Public Records Act (“PRA”). 2011 WL 2184965. Although the Court’s order came in an unpublished opinion, local governments can draw a number of lessons (and cautions) about the PRA from this case.

Washington local governments should take special note of how litigation influenced the number of penalty days assessed to Mesa; the different ways Mesa processed multiple and complex PRA requests; how Mesa responded to requests for non-existent and lost documents; how Mesa managed attorney-client privileged documents; and, how Mesa responded to requests for documents that the requestor already possessed. In this summary, we use the term “city” rather than “agency” or “local government,” for convenience only.

Lessons on How Litigation Affects Penalty Day Calculations

Q: If a city prevails at trial on withholding a record and later loses on appeal, is the city subject to penalty days for the period between the trial court order and the appellate court reversal?

A: Yes, the days between the trial court judgment and the appellate court reversal are included in the final penalty calculation. 2011 WL 2184965 at *6.

Q: Is a city subject to penalty days after a trial court orders a release of documents under the PRA?

A: Yes, a city is subject to additional PRA sanctions for delaying release of a public record after a court order. Id. Requestors may bring an additional PRA action to recover these penalties. Cities are also subject to Washington’s contempt laws for not complying with court orders. Chapter 7.21 RCW.

In the Zink v. City of Mesa litigation, the Zinks may still have a cause of action under the PRA or a remedial action for contempt of court under RCW 7.21.030 if Mesa did not properly comply with the trial court orders to produce records.

Q: Is a city ever subject to penalty days for the 5-day reply period under RCW 42.56.520?

A: Yes, if a city improperly denies a request within the 5-day reply period, then the records are improperly withheld for every day in which the record request was denied, including any portion of the 5-day reply period. Id. at *7-8.

Lessons on Managing Multiple and Complex PRA Requests

Q: Can requestors ask for “all public records” relating to a specific city matter?

A: Yes, if a city receives a request for “all public records” with respect to a specific matter, then the city’s failure to produce a document related to that matter constitutes a “silent withholding” in violation of the PRA. Id. at *8.

Ms. Zink’s request for all public records regarding the Zink’s property was sufficient to put Mesa on notice that a complaint issued against the Zink’s property was included in Ms. Zink’s request. Mesa’s failure to produce the requested complaint amounted to a “silent withholding” of public records in violation of the PRA.

Q: Is a city liable for separate penalties for every document in a request?

A: Sometimes, trial courts have discretion to group documents as a single request based on the city’s culpability as opposed to the size or volume of records requested. Id. at *9.

Penalties better serve the PRA’s purpose when they are directed at agency culpability as opposed to size of request. In Zink v. City of Mesa, the Zink’s request for an audio tape recording, meeting minutes, and rules and regulations adopted in a November 13, 2002 meeting were grouped together as one PRA request.

Q: If a city wrongfully redacts a record, then is it subject to penalty days for withholding the record starting from the date of the original request?

A: No, if a city wrongfully redacts records, then the penalty period only begins on the day that the city was required to produce the record and not on an earlier date. Id.

Mesa properly withheld records for 30 days in order to assemble them in response to the Zink’s multiple requests. However, the City violated the PRA when it provided wrongfully redacted copies on the date that it was required to provide unredacted copies.

Q: If a city receives a request that is substantially the same as a prior request, but only for a different time period, then is this a separate request for penalty purposes?

A: Not necessarily, the trial court has discretion to group the requests together as essentially one continuous request for penalty purposes. Id. at *10.

The Zinks requested all correspondence between Mesa and Mesa’s city attorney and also between Mesa and the Municipal Research and Services Center. A second request for subsequent communications between the same parties was treated as a single PRA request because they were for “essentially the same documents.”

Q: Can a city delay production of easily producible ordinances, board rules, and adopted regulations beyond the 5-day reply period?

A: Sometimes, a city is occasionally justified in delaying the production of easily producible records if it can show that the requested items accompany multiple other requests for documents that are time consuming to produce. Id.

Mesa properly delayed a request for minutes and adopted rules and regulations from a city council meeting when the request also included telephone logs and 18 residential files.

Q: Can a city direct a requestor to submit requests directly to the city attorney?

A: No, when a city directs a requestor to inquire with another official in the city, this referral is effectively a wrongful denial and penalties accrue beginning on the date of the denial. Id. at *11.

Directing Ms. Zink to contact the city attorney for a specific document was effectively a wrongful denial of a record and Mesa’s penalties accrued beginning on the date Ms. Zink was directed to the city attorney.

Q: Can a city limit viewing files to a one hour period during the day?

A: No, limiting Ms. Zink’s access to files for one hour on one day subjected Mesa to the maximum $100 penalty for that day. Id. at *11-12.

Q: Can a city delay production of a file once it is made available for viewing?

A: No, once a file is reasonably available for viewing, a city is subject to per-day penalty amounts for later restricting access to those files while also failing to provide copies of those files. Id.

Q: Can a city treat a requestor who asks for one ordinance differently than a requestor who asks for the same ordinance along with numerous other records?

A: Sometimes, when a request for a simple document, like an ordinance, is submitted with several other requests, the production of that ordinance may be delayed even if other requestors are provided that ordinance on the day of their request and even if it was the city that required the request to be put in writing. Id. at *14.

Ms. Zink’s request for a copy of a city ordinance was properly delayed because it accompanied multiple other requests even though her sister-in-law received the same ordinance on the same day she requested it.

Q: If a city groups multiple request together in writing, then will this be treated as one records request?

A: Not necessarily, although a city may decide to group requests together, trial courts have discretion to separate these requests for determining the number of penalty days. Id. at *15.

Mesa’s error in withholding several documents did not entitle it to have those documents grouped together as one request.

Lessons on Responding to Requests for Lost or Non-Existent Documents

Q: Is a city subject to penalties for failing to produce records that do not exist when the city is required by a separate statute to create that record?

A: No, even if a city is required by statute to generate a particular writing, like minutes, the PRA does not state that an agency’s violation of independent statutory duties to prepare records is also a violation of the PRA. A city is subject to PRA penalties only when the requested record actually exists. Id. at *12-13.

Q: If a requestor submits multiple requests at the same time, can a city treat the requests together and delay their production until all of the records are complied?

A: Yes, high volume requests may be assembled and released together. Id. at *13.

Q: Does a city need to respond to a request for documents that do not exist by stating that the documents do not exist?

A: Not necessarily, a city has no duty to state that records do not exist at the time of a particular request. Id. at *14. The PRA does not compel production of records that do not exist.

Mesa’s response that it would take 30 days to produce a record that it knew did not exist was not a violation of the PRA. The city intended to adopt the requested procedures within that time and then released them once they were enacted.

Q: Can a city delay production of ordinances and resolutions that accompany requests for non-existent documents?

A: Yes, a delay is reasonable when a city attempts to provide all of the legislative enactments together when they were requested at the same time, including enactments that do not yet exist. Id.

Lessons on Producing Attorney-Client Privileged Documents

Q: If a city claims that a document is exempt from disclosure as an attorney-client communication, is it required to justify that exemption?

A: Yes, to assert attorney-client privilege for public documents, the PRA requires cities to provide an exemption log detailing identifying information about the document and a brief explanation of how the statutory exemption applies to each specific record. Id. at *16.

Q: If a city inadvertently discloses attorney-client privileged documents, does this waiver subject the city to penalties for withholding public records?

A: No, accidental release of attorney-client privileged documents does not subject a city to penalties for withholding those records for the period in which they were properly under the attorney-client privilege. Id. at *16-17.

Lesson on Losing Original Documents

Q: If a city loses a signed version of a document, but produces a substantially similar document that is unsigned, then does the unsigned version comply with the PRA?

A: Yes, if the unsigned copies provide substantially the same information as what would have been provided with the signed copies. Id. at *18.

When Mesa provided the unsigned copies of minutes, it substantially fulfilled the purposes of the PRA by providing the Zinks full access to information concerning the conduct of government.

Lesson on the Statute of Limitations for PRA Claims

Q: Does the 5-year statute of limitations on bringing a PRA action limit PRA per-day violations to 1,827 days (5 years)?

A: No, the 5-year statute of limitations only limits the scope of PRA claims to violations that occurred within five years prior to filing the complaint. Id. Violations that occurred during the 5-year limitation period, however, will be penalized for each day that the requestor was denied the right to inspect or copy the public record. Similarly, the 1-year statute of limitations in RCW 42.56.550 does not limit the number of per-day violations that can accrue. Id.

Lessons on Documents Released Prior to PRA Litigation and
Documents Already Possessed by Requestors


Q: If a city fails to comply with the PRA for a period of time, but then complies prior to the requestor filing suit, is the city still liable under the PRA?

A: Yes, a city is liable for PRA violations regardless of whether PRA litigation is needed to compel the city to produce requested documents. Id. at *19.

Q: If a city knows that the requestor already has the document that is being requested, does the city still need to produce that document upon request?

A: Yes, a city is subject to penalties for not producing public records regardless of whether the requestor already possesses those records. Id.

Ms. Zink requested copies of correspondence from the Zinks to the City of Mesa. Mesa’s knowledge that Ms. Zink already possessed the requested documents was not a defense to withholding those documents because the date-stamped copy of a correspondence between the Zinks and Mesa is defined as a public record.


 

"By Anonymous" Does Not Work Under Washington Law For Inmates Objecting to a Request for an Injunction Against Abusive Use of The Public Records Act

In the context of a public agency seeking an injunction to prohibit repeated requests for public records by an inmate of a state prison, a court is permitted to consider the identity of a person making a Public Records Act (PRA) request.

This is the heart of the opinion issued on June 21, 2011 by the Court of Appeals in Franklin County Sheriff’s Office v. Parmelee. The Court rejected the claim by an inmate of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla that his identity as an inmate could not be considered by the trial court in ruling on a motion to enjoin him from making any further PRA requests.

The Court of Appeals pointed out that when the legislature passed an amendment to the PRA (RCW 42.56.565) allowing a public agency to seek an injunction against inmates’ abusive use of the PRA process, the identity of the requestor obviously became a core issue in that process. Therefore, the trial court’s finding that it was not permitted to consider the identity of the requestor – in a situation where an injunction is sought against an inmate – was in error.

Parmelee follows previous appellate rulings in Washington, where more restrictive PRA requirements have been applied to prisoners. See, for example, our January 20, 2011 blog posting: “Prisoners Have Public Records Rights – But Not All of Them.”
 

The Saga of Zink v. City of Mesa Continues - Washington Court of Appeals Remands Again

The Washington Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion dated June 7, 2011, has once again remanded the Zink v. City of Mesa case back to the trial court. This time the remand is for the purpose of entering new findings on the amount and rationale for penalties imposed on the City of Mesa for violating Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA).

In a previous published case, Division III of the Court of Appeals had overturned the initial trial court decision that found that Mesa had substantially complied with many of the Zink’s public disclosure requests. Zink v. City of Mesa, 140 Wn. App. 328, 166 P.3d 738 (2007). In that case the Court of Appeals had emphatically stated: “We hold that ‘substantial compliance’ is an incorrect standard by which to judge an agency’s compliance with its statutory duties. We further hold that the record does not support the trial court’s determination that the Zinks unlawfully harassed the City officials or that the City met its obligations under the PDA.”

The facts of this case provide some insight into the continuing controversy. As the Court of Appeals took pains to note in both cases, Ms. Zink was both a former council member and mayor of Mesa, who after leaving office became a self-styled “watch dog” over city actions, particularly after the city improperly denied her request for a building permit. By way of additional background, it should also be noted that the 2010 census reports that the City of Mesa (located in Franklin County) has a population of 489.

Upon remand from the 2007 decision, the trial court assessed penalties and attorney fees for violating the Public Records Act totaling $246,000. Both sides then appealed the amount of the penalties and the basis on which they were adopted. In this appeal, the Court of Appeals makes detailed rulings on many of the issues on appeal, but then remands the case back to the trial court again for a new determination of penalties based on the 16-factor test (7 mitigating factors and 9 aggravating factors) set out in the State Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, 168 Wn.2d 444, 229 P.3d 735 (2010).

One of the individual rulings in the unpublished decision highlights an important aspect of Washington’s Public Records Act. That is, a government is under no obligation – under the PRA – to produce documents that do not exist. The Zinks sought penalties under the PRA for the failure of the city to produce minutes of meetings that the city was required under a statutory obligation to prepare. But the Court rejected that claim. “Mesa admittedly violated separate statutes requiring it to prepare draft minutes of the Board meetings for public review. RCW 35A.39.010  RCW 42.32.030. But the PRA does not state that an agency’s violation of independent statutory duties to prepare records is a violation of the PRA.”
 

Caught Playing Hooky? Using Public Records Requests to Identify Wisconsin Teachers That "Called in Sick" During February Protests

In February, thousands of protestors, including many teachers, attended rallies in Wisconsin’s capitol to protest Governor Scott Walker’s proposed limits on collective bargaining for public workers.  As a result, schools were closed for a day or more in many districts.  Now conservative groups have filed public records requests asking school districts across the state to release the names of teachers who “called in sick” during the protests.

Many districts have complied, but the Madison School District (“District”), which had four days of closures in February, has denied several public records requests.  As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, the District is concerned that the release of the teachers’ names could “risk the safety of teachers and students, and disrupt morale and the learning environment in schools.”  The requesting groups deny that the information will be used to harm or harass teachers.  However, the District’s counsel believes otherwise, citing “a number of threats” made against board members, administrators and district employees as a result of teachers’ participation in the protests.

Some districts have successfully prevented disclosure of teachers’ names. The Wisconsin Education Association Council argued on behalf of the La Crosse and Holmen School Districts that safety risks outweighed the benefits of disclosure, obtaining an injunction from a La Crosse Circuit Court Judge.

Wisconsin’s Public Records laws do not include a disclosure exemption for general safety concerns. There is an exemption for specific employee records, including “personally identifiable information” such as addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers. Sec. 19.36(1) of the 2003 Wisconsin Act 47.  However, the requestors in this case seek only names, not identifying information.

When there is no established exemption (by statute or common law) and a public records custodian has doubts or concerns about whether to release records, Wisconsin courts perform a balancing test. Sec. 19.35(1)(a).  Records may be withheld only if the public interest in nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure, as there is a strong presumption of access.  See Matter of Estates v. Zimmer, 151 Wis. 2d 122 (Wis. Ct. App. 1989).

It remains to be seen how the court will balance the competing interests in this case, and whether the District’s safety argument will outweigh the presumption of disclosure that is central to the Wisconsin Public Records Act.

Washington’s Public Records Act is similar, in that there is no blanket exemption for safety or privacy. To prevent disclosure out of concerns for privacy or safety, an agency must prove that disclosure of the information 1) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and 2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.  RCW 42.56.050.  Specific personal identifying data is, of course, exempt from disclosure. RCW 42.56.210.  However, names must generally be disclosed.  See John Doe No. 1 v. Reed, __ U.S. ___, 130 S. Ct. 2811, 177 L.Ed.2d 493 (2011) (finding that Washington’s public records act authorized the release of the names of voters who signed referendum petitions); King County v. Sheehan, 114 Wn. App. 325, 57 P.3d 307 (2002) (holding that public records act does not exempt from disclosure the full names and ranks of county police officers).

An article in the May 26, 2011 Seattle Times highlights a recent Seattle “name release” case.  A labor arbitrator, acting at the request of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, just ordered the Seattle Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers found to have engaged in misconduct.  It is reported that the city attorneys plan to appeal, believing the decision is in conflict with Washington law.
 

Customs' Notice of Seizure May be Redacted Under "Trade Secrets" Exemption to FOIA - But Not After Disclosure to Third Party

The federal Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) contains nine exemptions. Under the exemptions, the government can withhold information that might otherwise be available for disclosure. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(1)-(9). FOIA “Exemption 4” applies to “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged and confidential.” In a recent decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals applied Exemption 4 to Notices of Seizure issued by the United States Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) to an importer of merchandise potentially infringing on a U.S. trademark.. CBP had heavily redacted the Notices of Seizure in responding to a FOIA request.

For application of Exemption 4, the 9th Circuit requires a government agency to demonstrate the information to be withheld is “(1) commercial and financial information, (2) obtained from a person or by the government, (3) that is privileged or confidential.” (Watkins v. U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, No. 09-35996, 5/6/11). The Court found that the Notices contained “plainly commercial information, which discloses intimate aspects of an importers business such as supply chains and fluctuations of demand for merchandise.”

But, under a separate statute, Notices must be disclosed to a trademark owner that may be aggrieved by the purported violation by the importer.

When disclosure is made to a trademark owner, the government imposes no restriction on the owner’s use of the information in the notice. He can freely disseminate the notices to his attorneys, business affiliates, trade organizations, the importer’s competitors, or the media in a way that would compromise the purportedly sensitive information about an offending importer’s trade operations. This no-strings-attached disclosure thus voids any claims to confidentiality and constitutes waiver of Exemption 4. FOIA accordingly creates an obligation for the government to disclose the requested documents.

In addition to other specific exemptions from disclosure, the Washington Public Records Act contains a similar provision that allows an agency to withhold “financial, commercial and proprietary information.” R.C.W. 42.56.270. That exemption from disclosure also includes:

proprietary data, trade secrets, or other information that relates to: (a) A vendor’s unique methods of conducting business; (b) data unique to the product or services of the vendor; or (c) determining prices or rates to be charged for services [for certain social and health services and health care activities].

R.C.W. 42.56.270(11).

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act, Ch. 19.108 RCW, also provides exemptions from disclosure under the Public Records Act through the “other statute” provisions of RCW 42.56.070(1) (formerly RCW 42.17.260(1)). Progressive Animal Welfare Soc’y v. University of Washington, 125 Wn.2d 242, 262, 884 P.2d 592 (1994).

 

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.”
 

No Freedom for Executives? Freedom Foundation Sues Washington Governor Christine Gregoire Over Documents Withheld Under "Executive Privilege"

The Libertarian group Freedom Foundation has recently filed suit against Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, alleging that the Governor withheld public records under an “Executive Privilege” exemption not found in the text of Washington’s Public Records Act (“PRA”), 42.56 RCW.

According to the Foundation’s website, the suit was commenced after a member of the Foundation requested documents from the Governor’s Office in April 2010, including records dealing with “medical marijuana legislation, Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement proposals, and the Columbia River hydro system.” The complaint seeks production of the requested records (some of which were withheld or redacted), attorneys’ fees and penalties for violating the PRA. The complaint only addresses the Governor’s response to the April 2010 request; however the Freedom Foundation has also alleged that since 2007, Gregoire has used the executive privilege 500 times in efforts to withhold records.

Under Washington’s PRA, public agency records must be made available to the public upon request unless they're covered by a specific exemption, identified in the PRA itself, or covered by other applicable Federal and State laws. See WAC 44-14-010. There is a strong policy in favor of disclosure, and exemptions are construed narrowly. See Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 262, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) (“PAWS II”). Although there are many exemptions listed in the PRA, the statute does not contain a general “executive privilege” exemption. Nor is the executive privilege listed as an exemption recognized by the Washington State Attorney General in its Model Rules on Public Disclosure.  See WAC 44-14-06002

According to a recent article in the Seattle Times, the Governor's Office says that the source of the executive privilege is the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers. As the Times reports, there has only been one definitive Washington court case addressing executive privilege, where a Snohomish County trial court made an oral ruling in favor of the exemption. However, in that case the executive privilege was raised in the context of documents requested in litigation, and used in conjunction with the deliberative process exemption, which prevents disclosure of records used as part of the policy and decision-making processes during the time such decisions are being made. PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 256. It is important to note, however, that after a decision is finalized, the records may be subject to disclosure. Id.

A Washington court may find that the deliberative process exemption applies to at least some of the records Freedom Foundation alleges were withheld in April 2010, particularly if the records reflect ongoing decision and policy making within the Governor’s Office. However, it remains to be seen whether the courts will directly address the issues of executive privilege and separation of powers. On the other hand, facing a parallel separation of powers issue in 1986, the Washington Supreme Court held that the judiciary is not included within the reach of the Public Records Act. Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 730 P.2d 54 (1986).

Tennessee Supreme Court: Public University Faculty Non-Profit Corporation Is Not An "Agency" Under Public Records Act

A group of internists at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine (UTCOM) organized as a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation, identified as the Internal Medicine Educational Foundation (IMEF). The purpose of IMEF is to "provide educational programs, research and support services for the internal medicine residency program" at UTCOM. When the IMEF refused plaintiff's request for records, plaintiff sued under the Tennessee Public Records Act. Like Washington State, Tennessee applies its PRA to those agencies described by the law and to entities that are the "functional equivalent of a government agency." Functional equivalency is determined by certain factors:

(1) whether the entity performs a governmental function;

(2) the extent of government funding;

(3) the extent of government control over the entity; and

(4) whether the entity was created by legislative act.

Those factors are then applied under a "totality of the circumstances" test to determine if the entity is the functional equivalent of an agency. Applying the factors, the Tennessee Supreme Court on February 28, 2011 found that IMEF was not the functional equivalent of an agency. As a result, IMEF was not subject to that state's PRA.

Washington's Public Records Act, at Chapter 42.56 RCW, similarly may be applied to an entity when found to be the functional equivalent of an agency. See Telford v. Thurston County Board of Commissioners, 95 Wash.App. 149, 974 P.2d 886 (1999). In Telford, the Court of Appeals held that while the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC) and the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) were not agencies as such, they were the “functional equivalent” of agencies and therefore subject to the campaign finance provisions of the Washington Public Disclosure Act. The court in Telford did not address the separate provisions of the Public Disclosure Act relating to public records (now, the Washington Public Records Act). And, the decision did not address other entities similar to WSAC and WACO.

In 2002, the Washington Attorney General issued a formal opinion in response to an inquiry regarding the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) and other organizations. See AGO 2002 No. 2 (April 10, 2002). In that formal Opinion, the Attorney General examined whether entities whose membership includes public agencies were separately subject to the Public Records Act. The opinion examined the Telford analysis (factors similar to those applied by the Tennessee Court), but concluded that any application of the statute to “AWC in a public records context must await the development of an actual factual situation to which the principles set forth in the statute, as interpreted in Telford, might be applied.”

Subsequent Washington cases have reached divergent results, based primarily on the extent of an entity's government funding and governmental authority. For example, in Spokane Research & Defense Fund v. West Central Community Dev. Ass’n, 133 Wn. App. 602 (2006), the court found that a contract vendor in a city park was not the functional equivalent of a public agency. But, in Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care and Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185 (2008), the court found a non-profit entity providing enforcement of animal control laws under contract with city and county governments was the functional equivalent of an agency.
 

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.”
 

Discovery in Public Records Act Cases: Yes, But No

On March 29, 2011, Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals held that a city is entitled to conduct discovery in a case the city initiated against a records requestor to affirm the City’s interpretation of the Public Records Act (PRA). But the court found the city’s interrogatories about the requestor’s past litigation history were improper. City of Lakewood v. Koenig.

Koenig, a regular requestor under the Washington Public Records Act, had requested documents from the City of Lakewood related to alleged wrongdoing by three police officers. The City provided information but redacted driver’s license numbers of officers, victims and eyewitnesses. When Koenig did not respond to a request from the City asking if he felt the documents provided were adequate, the City started a lawsuit under RCW 42.56.540 to confirm the validity of the City’s redactions.

When Koenig was served with interrogatories and requests for production, he resisted any questions relating to his past litigation history. He argued that those discovery requests were improper as not allowed by the law. Additionally, the City had no discovery rights in a PRA case the City itself had initiated, because the identity or background or any other information about a requestor has no bearing on document disclosure issues. The Court, however, affirmed that the discovery process is available to the City in this, as in any other case (unless an exception exists under statute or court rule). Since the PRA is not listed as a proceeding barred from discovery under court rule or statute, the City was entitled to conduct otherwise proper discovery.

But, the Court ruled, the City is not entitled to look into the litigation history of Koenig. The City asserted that Koenig was a well-known PRA requester and had a history of waiting until the last day before the statute of limitations ran before filing suit as a strategy to increase eventual penalties. The Court, however, found that the City’s perceptions had no bearing on the nature of the documents or on the ultimate penalties for non-disclosure. In fact, the Court explicitly held that waiting to file a lawsuit until the last day of the statute of limitations for PRA requests was within the right of any litigant, including Mr. Koenig, whatever that litigant’s objectives. On the other hand, the Court did acknowledge that there could be legitimate issues in discovery regarding economic losses of the requestor that might be caused by delay or by incomplete responses of the public agency, as those losses could later affect the amount of penalties for non-disclosure.

Because the City won on the issue of discovery, and Koenig won on the issue of specific interrogatories, the Court ruled that neither party was entitled to fees, especially as the underlying issue of redacting the driver’s license numbers had yet to be decided. One judge dissented, but only on the issue of whether Koenig should have received attorney’s fees under CR 26(c) for having successfully blocked a part of the City’s discovery request.
 

Change? -- Two Halves of the FOIA Glass

Has the Obama Administration effected real change in FOIA responsiveness? A recent Associated Press article, claims that the federal Freedom of Information Act is unwieldy and difficult, and that only the most patient and persistent requesters actually obtain the sought-for information. The article is critical of agencies’ efforts in implementing President Obama’s promise to make government more open and release more information rapidly.

During an event sponsored for Sunshine Week, March 13-19, reported in the AP article, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli is quoted as stating that more records are going out unredacted than ever before. “Where we once might have looked at a document, noticed a piece that could be released, and redacted the rest, we’re now more often determining that we can release the whole thing,” Perrelli is quoted as saying. However, a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas Fitton of Judicial Watch, stated that the conservative watchdog group has “filed 44 lawsuits to force the Obama administration to comply with the law.”

But perhaps there has been a change in how the Administration views the FOIA – now that it is on the inside. In a blog posted March 16 to celebrate Sunshine Week, Steve Croley, a Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, points out that it is not in the public’s interests to release every document: “Our government also owes its citizens, among other things, protection of their personal privacy and business confidentiality, effective law enforcement, and a strong national defense.”

In Washington State on the other hand, the courts continue to liberally construe the state’s Public Records Act, and continue to extended its reach. See, for example, the expansive interpretation of the Public Records Act to include records contained on a city council member’s home computer discussed in our blog post of December 22, 2010, “City of Monroe, Washington Pays $157,394 to Settle Public Records Act Case.”
 

Pennsylvania County Must Disclose Contractor's Employment Records - Even Though County Doesn't Have Them

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania contracts with hundreds of service providers. One of those contracts is with A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI), where ASCI evaluates an individual’s qualifications to provide foster care to dependent children. A Pittsburgh television station requested that the County provide the “names, birth dates and hire dates of all employees” of ASCI who provide services to the County. Not surprisingly, the County said that those records were not available to the County and they rejected the television station’s request under the Pennsylvania Right-To-Know-Law (RTKL). Without explaining how the County should get the records, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (a court whose jurisdiction is generally limited to legal matters involving State and local governments and regulatory agencies) held that the employment records of ASCI were “public records” and accessible under the RTKL. It is unclear what process would be used under the RTKL by a local government to recover such records from a contractor.

In Washington, a contracting agency that provides governmental services is generally considered an agency and subject to the Washington Public Records Act. Clarke v. Tri-Cities Animal Care & Control Shelter, 144 Wn. App. 185 (2008). In the most common situation, the request would be made directly to the contracting agency (in Pennsylvania, ASCI). But in the event a request is not made directly to the contracting agency, but instead to the local government, the local government must either recover the documents from the contractor or maintain a separate court action to protect the local government from liability under the Public Records Act. See, e.g., City of Federal Way v. Koenig, 167 Wn.2d 341 (2009), discussed in the October 23, 2009 posting on this site: “WA Supreme Court Re-Affirms that Public Records Act Does Not Apply to the Judiciary.”

In Washington, as in Pennsylvania, the fact that an agency subject to the Washington Public Records Act does not possess a document does not necessarily preclude agency responsibility for producing a public record. See Concerned Ratepayers v. PUD No. 1, 138 Wn.2d 950 (1999) (design specifications for power plant prepared by PUD’s contractor, but not in possession of PUD, required to be disclosed).
 

Hard Times for Hard Drives: The Washington Supreme Court Addresses the Public Records Act in the Digital Age

Once again the Washington Supreme Court will be called upon to evaluate the reach of the Public Records Act (“PRA”) in the digital age. On Thursday, January 27, 2011, the Court entertained oral argument in Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County v. County of Spokane, No. 84108-0, a case involving Spokane County’s failure to produce missing electronic records ostensibly stored (then erased) off the hard drive of an old, retired County computer.

In 2005, Alliance, a nonprofit government accountability group, made several public records requests seeking documents they believed would expose alleged nepotism in County hiring processes. In response to Alliance’s request, County officials checked the hard drives of the computers its employees were currently using, but did not search computers that were no longer in use (no matter how recently the computers had been retired). The hard drive of a particular computer that may have held the requested information was wiped clean and thereafter, despite Alliance’s outstanding records request, the retired computer was not searched. The parties disagreed as to whether the record did exist on the hard drive, whether the County conducted a proper search, whether the County violated the PRA, and if so, the appropriate level of penalties. The Court of Appeals held that the County did violate the PRA by failing to conduct a “reasonably adequate” search for the complete electronic information requested, and remanded the case to the trial court to determine the resulting penalties, costs and fees.

As reported by the Spokesman-Review, the Supreme Court will revisit these issues in depth.  In particular, the Justices will be asked to decide what constitutes a “reasonable” search of such electronic records in a world where computers are constantly upgraded, replaced and repurposed.  Must agencies regularly search old computers?  All electronic storage systems?  How soon can a hard drive be wiped?The Court will also face the issue of the financial burden on the County.  For example, the case raises the question of whether $100 daily penalties should keep accruing or whether the clock should have stopped running on any penalties at the time the hard drive was wiped clean.

Neighorhood Alliance comes on the heels of a another Washington State case addressing the intersection of electronic discovery and the PRA.  See O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, 240 P.3d 1149 (2010) (holding that metadata is subject to disclosure as a public record).  We’re likely to see more cases on this topic as agencies attempt to determine their responsibilities under the Act as they incorporate new practices and technologies in the digital age.

Global Perspective: Using Open Public Record Laws to Fight Corruption in Rural India

The New York Times has been reporting on how open public records laws are being enlisted in the fight against governmental corruption – not here in the United States – but on the other side of the world, in rural India. In 2005, India joined a growing list of developing countries to enact a national open public records law, known as the Right to Information Act (“RIA”).  The legislation’s preamble asserted that “democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparent information” and identified curbing governmental corruption as a central goal of the RIA. The RIA requires governmental agencies to respond to citizen requests for information within 30 days of receiving a request. Similar to Washington’s Public Records Act, 42.56 R.C.W., and the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 551-559, governmental agencies that fail to comply with information requests are subject to daily penalties. 

In 2010, the New York Times reported on how the RIA was leveling the playing field between corrupt governmental bureaucrats and India’s poor.  Right-To-Know Law Gives India’s Poor a Lever, New York Times, June 28, 2010. The piece included a number of stories illustrating how India’s poorest citizens used the RIA to spur governmental bureaucrats into action.  One story involved an impoverished mother of three who had been waiting for four years to receive a housing assistance grant. After seeing her well-to-do neighbors receive grants ahead of her, the mother used the RIA to request records detailing who had received grants in her community and why. Days after submitting the request, governmental officials approved her grant. In another village, community members became fed up with a public health care worker who rarely showed up to staff the community health clinic. The citizens utilized the RIA to request copies of the clinic’s attendance records. With her attendance record revealed, the health care worker started showing up every day. Success stories like these have provided hope to good governance advocates that India is moving in the direction of open and transparent government.

However, on January 22, 2011, the New York Times published a follow-up story showing how opponents of open government have begun using violence to intimidate and silence requesters. High Price for India’s Information Law, New York Times, January 22, 2011. The article described one case where a requester was murdered after uncovering evidence about an illegal mining operation that may have involved government officials. The author estimated that at least a dozen requesters have been murdered since the RIA was enacted in 2005 and scores of others have been beaten and harassed. This violence is apparently having a chilling effect on many would-be activists. 

Time will tell whether India’s nascent open public records policies can survive this backlash. 

The Warden is Watching - But You Can't Have the Tapes

Following up on my January 20 blog post, the Washington Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion has denied another request for public records by an inmate of the state prison system. Fisher v. Dept. of Corrections, January 24, 2011. Read opinion here.

Fisher, an inmate of Washington’s Monroe Corrections Complex, alleged that a fellow inmate had assaulted him in the prison law library. To support this allegation, Fisher asked for surveillance tapes of the library. The Department refused, citing RCW 42.56.240(1) which exempts “specific intelligence information compiled by . . . penology agencies. . . the nondisclosure of which is essential to effective law enforcement.” The Department argued that the tapes, if disclosed, could allow the prisoners to learn the capabilities and the limitations of the prison’s extensive camera surveillance system, and thereby “allow inmates to determine weaknesses and exploit those weaknesses by assaulting other inmates or committing crimes and prison infractions.”

The Court of Appeals found the unrefuted affidavit of the Department’s director of prisons division persuasive, and determined that “Intelligence information provided by video surveillance systems therefore falls squarely within the core definition of ‘law enforcement.’” The nondisclosure of the surveillance tapes was thus found by the Court to be “essential to effective law enforcement."

Prisoners Have Public Records Rights - But Not All of Them

Public records act requests by prisoners have long been an issue for jail administrators and for the courts. Creative gaming of public records act requests by prisoners has bedeviled both.

While the State of Washington’s courts have liberally applied the reach of public records act requests, both the legislature and the courts have imposed limitations in the area of prisoner requests. In 2009, the Washington legislature amended the state’s Public Records Act expressly to allow for an injunction against repeated or abusive public records act requests by prisoners under specified circumstances. RCW 42.56.565.

On January 19, 2011, Division II of the Washington Court of Appeals issued an opinion which confirmed the validity of Department of Corrections’ rules restricting the ability of prisoners to personally inspect most public records – rather than receive copies at the prisoner’s expense. Gronquist v. [Washington] Dept. of Corrections.

In Gronquist, the Court of Appeals upheld Department rules that allow a prisoner to personally inspect only his or her central file or medical file. Otherwise, a prisoner is required to pay $0.20 per page plus postage for photocopies of any requested documents that will then be mailed. The Court ruled that the general rule allowing a requestor to either inspect public records in person or obtain copies (or both) does not necessarily apply to a prisoner whose rights are already constrained. The Court recognized the broad reach of the Public Records Act, but also recognized the countervailing need of the Department of Corrections mandate to manage prison inmates. Accordingly, if a prisoner refuses to pay for copies, the Department is not obligated to provide the requested records or to allow for personal inspection of the records at no charge. This decision follows an earlier opinion by Division III of the Washington Court of Appeals which adopted the same principle. Sappenfield v. Dept. of Corr., 127 Wn. App. 83, 110 P.3d 808 (2005), review denied, 156 Wn.2d 1013.

 

Washington Supreme Court Reaffirms Courthouse Door as Bright-line in Public Records Act Application

In a 9-0 decision, the Washington Supreme Court upheld rejection of a public records request for court records in a court’s possession, once again reaffirming long-standing case law. The decision in Yakima County v. Yakima Herald-Republic, Case No. 82229-8 (January 13, 2010) also remanded the case for potential disclosure of similar records held outside of the court by other agencies.

The Yakima Herald-Republic filed public records requests regarding funding the defense of two indigent criminals charged with first-degree murder. The newspaper made its requests to both the Yakima County Superior Court and several outside agencies who had involvement with paying the defense expenses . These requests were made after the newspaper had sought to have the court provide the records, which the case judges had “sealed,” preventing disclosure of documents under the court administrative rules.

Washington courts have, since at least 1986, repeatedly rejected argument that courts are “agencies” subject to Washington’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW. See, Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 730 P.2d 54 (1986). The newspaper tried to distinguish the Yakima case from the Court’s precedent by arguing that financial aspects of the case were merely administrative. While this argument would seem to be unremarkable, the newspaper urged that the defendants had two judges assigned, one to handle the financial matters and one to try the case. Because the financial matters were separate from the actual court proceedings, the financial documents should be disclosed.. (Many states, including Washington, require attorneys for indigent defendants to obtain court authorization for investigation and expert witness costs.)

The newspaper also called the judicial approval of indigent defense expenditures “curious,” but the Court succinctly rejected the newspaper’s public records argument as “without merit.” The Court went on to note that judicial approval of defense funding is provided for in both the federal and Washington rules on criminal procedure; dividing judicial responsibilities in potential capital cases is common (even required in California); and, indigent defense funding is still a judicial issue even if handled by a second judge.

For court documents that had been provided to outside agencies, the Court ruled that the Public Records Act applies and that the agencies should have complied with the PRA. The Supreme Court ordered that the trial court would first need to review the materials in question to determine if the trial court had forwarded the documents to the outside agencies with a protective order or other instructions “sufficient to retain their character as judicial documents” or if a PRA exemption to disclosure applies. These outside agencies may be subject to the PRA daily penalties (for delay in disclosing records) if the trial court finds they were not protected by court order and should have been disclosed.
 

Public Records Act Subject to Legislative Consideration

The Association of Washington Cities, a non-profit organization, has reported on potential bills to be considered in the upcoming legislative session. In working with other local government groups, bills have been developed that would allow agencies to charge the actual personnel costs exceeding five hours of staff time per month on a request. A second bill would provide for a voluntary conference between an agency and a requestor before any court action could be filed. If a conference is not accepted, a court may reject daily penalties upon finding a violation of the Public Records Act. These bills are in addition to proposals from the Washington Attorney General, including one that would establish an Office of Open Records. The Attorney General’s proposal would provide for resolution of public records disputes through the State’s Office of Administrative Hearings, rather than through the courts. See, “McKenna: Rein in prisoners’ use of Public Records Act” from The Spokesman-Review.

Washington Court of Appeals Upholds Sanctions Against Disgruntled Employee for Repeated, Frivolous Public Records Requests

The Washington State Court of Appeals recently upheld the denial of a public employee’s repeated requests for an agency’s investigative records following the employee’s termination. The Court also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by imposing sanctions (under superior court Civil Rule ("CR") 11) on the employee for frivolous records requests.  Phillips v. Valley Communications, Inc. (unpublished decision issued December 27, 2010).

The employee, Phillips, who worked at a 911 call distribution center, had complained about his supervisor, triggering agency investigations. Phillips was terminated, after a psychiatric evaluation concluded he was not fit for duty.

In response to his request for documents, Phillips received copies of his personnel and medical files and a copy of the psychiatrist’s report. However he was not given the agency’s complete investigative file, much of which the agency contended was exempt from the Washington Public Records Act (“PRA”) under attorney-client and work product privileges.  Phillips then brought suit in superior court challenging the agency’s compliance with the PRA. Following in camera review, the trial court issued several orders, none of which were appealed by the employee. Meanwhile, during this initial proceeding, Phillips continued to make repeated records requests to the agency for the very same documents, as well as “clarifications” of the agency’s earlier responses. 

Several months later, Phillips brought a second suit claiming that the agency failed to comply with the PRA.  The agency moved for injunctive relief. This time, the trial court denied Phillips’ requests, holding that they were bared by res judicata, collateral estoppel and the statute of limitations, since Philips had never appealed the final order from the first superior court proceeding.  The trial court also awarded CR 11 sanctions against Phillips for his frivolous and repeated PRA requests.  But, the court denied the agency’s request for an injunction under RCW 42.56.540 (enjoining examination of public records if such examination would not be in the public interest or would substantially and irreparably damage a person or vital government function). The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s rulings.

This decision highlights the issues courts face when balancing the open-government goals of the PRA with the reality of abusive and/or frivolous requestors.  In the employment context, a PRA request can sometimes serve as an easy way for a disgruntled public employee to burden a former employer.  However, CR 11 sanctions are not commonly imposed on requestors. While the Philips opinion provides limited analysis on this topic, the employee’s repeated and unsupported requests for the same information appear to be the root cause of the Court’s hard-line response. However, the Court also denied the agency’s request for injunctive relief against Phillips. The Court reminds us, once again, that exemptions to the PRA are narrowly construed; despite the inconvenience and burden imposed on an agency by a difficult requestor, the agency must still identify its reasons for withholding records and provide sufficient evidence to support its exemption claims.

Portland Harbor Superfund Cleanup Agreement Exempt from Disclosure Under Oregon Public Records Act

The Port of Portland did not have to disclose a joint defense agreement among the lawyers for several parties potentially responsible for cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.  A public interest group sought disclosure of the agreement under Oregon’s Public Records Act (“PRA”). The trial court and the Court of Appeals held that the agreement was exempt from disclosure under ORS 192.502(9)(a). Port of Portland v. Oregon Ctr. for Envtl. Health, 238 Or. App. 404 (Or. Ct. App. 2010. The Oregon exemption covers “public records or information the disclosure of which is prohibited or restricted or otherwise made confidential or privileged under Oregon Law.” The exemption encompasses materials that are subject to the attorney-client and work product privileges codified in Oregon’s Evidence Code, including “confidential communications made for the purpose of facilitating the rendering of professional legal services” and communications “by the client or the client’s lawyer to a lawyer representing another in a matter of common interest.” OEC 503(2). Despite the public interest group’s protestations that the agreement did not fit within the exemption, the Court held otherwise.  The Court held the agreement was exempt from disclosure under Oregon’s PRA as a confidential legal communication generated as a matter of common interest among lawyers representing the parties potentially responsible for the Superfund site.

Washington’s Public Records Act similarly contains exemptions for documents subject to attorney- client privilege. Washington’s general attorney-client privilege statute, RCW .60.060 (2)(a), is considered an "other statute" that provides for exemption from disclosure, as described in RCW 42.56.070 (1) of the PRA.  In addition, RCW 42.56.210 (1)(j) exempts attorney work-product involving a "controversy," i.e. completed, existing, or reasonably anticipated litigation involving the agency. See WAC 44-14-06002 (codifying the Washington State Attorney General’s Model Rules on Public Disclosure).  In general, the attorney-client privilege covers records reflecting communications made in confidence between a public official or agency employee acting in the performance of his or her duties, and an attorney serving in the capacity of legal advisor for the purpose of rendering or obtaining legal advice. The privilege also covers records prepared by the attorney in furtherance of the rendition of his or her legal advice. Id.  For example, recognizing a public interest in defending against civil liability, the Washington Supreme Court applied privilege protections to documents created by a school district’s legal team during the team’s investigation of a student’s death giving rise to potential liability. Soter v. Cowles Publ’g Co., 162 Wn.2d 716, 174 P.3d 60 (2007).

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.”  

Washington Court of Appeals Requires State Patrol to Disclose Location-Specific Accident Reports

A unanimous panel of the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II, ruled that the Washington State Patrol’s police traffic collision reports were not protected by federal law and had to be turned over to a citizen requesting accident reports for a specific location. Gendler v. Batiste, et al., Case No. 39333-6-II (Wash. Ct. App., Div. II, Nov. 24, 2010). The requester, Michael “Mickey” Gendler, suffered a devastating spinal-cord injury while biking across Seattle’s Montlake Bridge, leaving him a quadriplegic.  The front wheel of Gendler’s bike wedged in a wide gap on the bridge and he was thrown head-first over his handlebars. After Gendler learned that other bicyclists had “similar debilitating accidents” on the Montlake Bridge, he made a public records request to the State Patrol for “all police reports relating to collisions involving bicycles on the Montlake Bridge in Seattle (SR 513).”

The State Patrol would only provide records if Gendler was able to identify the person involved and the collision date, while also telling Gendler that it did not maintain reports by location. Gendler found he could obtain specific records from the State Patrol’s website, but only after certifying that he would not use the records in a lawsuit against the State. In a separate action, Gendler sued the State over his injuries and that case recently settled.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the the trial court, holding that the State Patrol cannot hide behind a memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) with the State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) and WSDOT’s federal privilege under 23 U.S.C. §409, barring use of collision data in lawsuits. The federal privilege is intended to allow WSDOT to compile and analyze accident data to better implement highway safety measures funded by the federal government without concern that such analysis would be used to support lawsuits against the State.

Although WSDOT has physical custody of the accident records based on the MOU, they are still State Patrol records and subject to disclosure if the State Patrol cannot show an appropriate exemption. While the State Patrol’s reports do provide information for WSDOT’s federally exempt accident tracking and analysis, WSDOT’s exemption does not bar disclosure because the State Patrol collects its accident information for other non-exempt law enforcement investigation purposes. Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court's order requiring the State Patrol to produce the requested reports without limitation, e.g. the waiver of lawsuit rights that the State Patrol sought for Gendler to receive the requested records.

Alabama Supreme Court Finds Health Care Authority Subject to the Open Records Act and Hospital Bid Materials Subject to Disclosure

The Alabama Supreme Court recently ruled that a public corporation (“Health Care Authority”) that owned several hospitals was a “local government entity” and therefore subject to the state’s Open Records Act.  Tennessee Valley Printing Company, Inc. v. Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County and the City of Florence, --- So.3d ----, 2010 WL 4272678 (Ala.). Despite the Health Care Authority’s protestations, the Court found that the corporation’s assets had been accumulated through use of statutorily-authorized governmental powers, including eminent domain and issuance of tax-free bonds, and that the corporation could not sell substantially all of its assets without prior approval of an authorizing government subdivision.

Promising confidentiality to bidders, the Heath Care Authority invited bids to acquire Authority hospitals. The Court found that the documents relating to the final sale of the hospitals, including bids and a letter of intent from the winning bidder, could be disclosed under the Alabama Open Records Act.  The Court noted that, “a private party cannot render public records exempt from disclosure merely by designating information it furnishes a governmental agency confidential.  The right to examine these records is a right belonging to the public; it cannot be bargained away by a representative of the government.”  The Court then rejected the Health Care Authority’s two proposed exemptions, finding that the exemption for recorded information received by a public officer in confidence was inapplicable, as was the exemption for records which, if disclosed, would be detrimental to the best interest of the public.

Washington’s Public Records Act (“PRA”) does not have a general exemption for bid materials. And, there is no Washington case law interpreting this issue.  However, it is likely that Washington courts would come to the same conclusion as the Alabama Supreme Court.  Confidentiality is not a stand-alone exemption, and bidders cannot rely on that designation to prevent disclosure of their materials.  See WAC 44-14-06002 (codifying the Washington State Attorney General’s Model Rules on Public Disclosure).  To prevent disclosure, records must fall under a specific PRA exemption category, such as “trade secrets” (or other statutory provisions that may limit disclosure of contract proposals).  And, if portions of a record fall under one of the statutory exemption categories, an agency may still release the record with redactions.

 

Washington Supreme Court Again Rules in Favor of Document Release

In a unanimous decision, the Washington Supreme Court again came down in favor of expansive public records disclosure and narrow reading of exemptions from disclosure, this time in the realm of investigation records during pending criminal trials. Among the public records at issue in Seattle Times Co., et al. v. Serko & Chushcoff, et al., Case No. 84691-0 (Nov. 18, 2010) were materials gathered during the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office investigation of the Maurice Clemmons police killings. In 2009, Clemmons shot and killed four Lakewood police officers, then evaded law enforcement with assistance from his friends and family before being killed himself by a Seattle police officer. Soon after, criminal proceedings began against Clemmons’ alleged accomplices.

The Seattle Times and others requested records related to the Clemmons investigation from the Sheriff, which he intended to release. The criminal defendants sought to stop the Sheriff from producing “any and all” records responsive to the requests, claiming the records were exempt “because their production would impair their right to a fair trial.” More specifically, the defendants argued that release of the materials would result in media coverage that could taint the future jury pool. Ruling for the defendants, the trial court relied on RCW 42.56.540, which allows the superior courts to enjoin disclosure of a public record if doing so “would clearly not be in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably damage any person… or vital government functions.”

The Supreme Court, however, vacated the trial court’s order and reaffirmed its previous holding that RCW 42.56.540 is a procedural provision allowing for injunctive relief to enforce records release exemptions, but does not otherwise provide any specific exemption. See Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 257, 884 P.2d 592 (1994). The Court allowed that fair trial rights may sometimes be a basis for suppressing records, but that in this context the withholding must be analyzed like any other precautionary measure aimed at issues regarding pre-trial publicity, e.g. change of venue or a gag order. But the defendants had to show a probability of unfairness or prejudice from pre-trial publicity. And then the trial court would need to inquire into other alternatives to suppression and “find with particularity” that it is more probable than not that unfairness or prejudice would result from disclosure. The trial court’s order here was not particular regarding resulting unfairness or prejudice and did not consider alternatives, so the Court found the order suppressing records had no proper basis.

Beyond this main holding, the Court discussed several other public records issues:

  • Writs of mandamus remain a proper tool for third parties seeking disclosure of information related to a criminal trial because intervention is unavailable. But the Court acknowledges that Washington’s rule may be out of step with other states that allow direct third-party intervention in criminal cases for the purpose of information gathering.
  • The Court rejected the criminal defendants’ theories that the work-product privilege extends from the prosecutor’s office (from which records were not requested) to the law enforcement agency (from which records were requested). Police are not merely the investigatory arm of the prosecutor. Work-product only includes material prepared by the attorney, not prepared on behalf of the attorney.
  • The PRA exemption for law enforcement investigative records exemption, RCW 42.56.240, has limited application, generally covering only the time before a suspect has been arrested and the matter has been referred to the prosecutor.
     

Ohio Supreme Court Affirms Sanctions for Frivolous PRA Claims

In State ex rel. Bardwell v. Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners, 2010 WL 4260674 (Oct. 26, 2010), the Ohio Supreme Court (by 5-2 vote) upheld an award of sanctions to a county and against a public records act (PRA) requester who filed a law suit one day after submitting public records act requests to a county prosecutor. The Court of Appeals had sua sponte ordered requester to show cause why sanctions under the court rules (CR 11) should not be awarded, and then awarded sanctions. 2009 WL 3387654. The Supreme Court affirmed the award of sanctions.

Bardwell, the public records act requester submitted three requests, one for the prosecutor’s document retention schedule; one for correspondence between the Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners and a local newspaper; and, the third for drafts of an economic development agreement involving the county and private developers. The records-retention schedule was provided the same day; and the next day the prosecutor provided to Bardwell the correspondence with the local newspaper. The prosecutor also (again, one day after the request was received) informed Bardwell in writing that drafts of contracts were not subject to disclosure, and advised: “When an agreement is finalized and ready to be submitted to the Board of County Commissioners for approval, the final agreement and drafts will be made available.”

The court of appeals decided that “Bardwell’s filing of a complaint for mandamus, which was groundless in fact and legal argument, can only be the result of a willful action and constitutes bad faith. Thus, we find that Bardwell consciously violated [Court] Rule 11 and that sanctions must be imposed.” The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the court of appeals did not abuse its discretion in awarding the sanctions. The Court noted ten reasons justifying the sanctions, including: (1) the fact that the complaint was filed one day after the records were in fact provided; not supported by a sworn affidavit as required by local rule; and, not amended after additional documents were provided; (2) all non-exempt records were promptly provided, mooting the records claim; (3) Bardwell did not provide for a transcript of the Rule 11 hearing, or submit exhibits, so there was literally nothing for the court to use as a basis to overturn the lower court’s discretionary decision; and,(4) Bardwell failed even to file a brief in opposition to the prosecutor’s motion for summary judgment, yet appealed the summary judgment ruling.

The lengthy dissent notes that grounds existed as a matter of law for the complaint; as drafts of contracts are not necessarily exempt from public disclosure.

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).
 

Ohio Supreme Court Allows Disclosure of "Uncharged-Suspect" Records

On July 20, 2010, the Ohio Supreme Court expanded access to public records formerly protected from disclosure under the “uncharged-suspect” exemption to Ohio’s Public Records Act. The court held that the exemption applies only to portions of records that, if released, could reveal a suspect’s identity. The records in question were not “inextricably intertwined” with the suspect’s identity, so the court ordered disclosure after identifying information was redacted.

The decision was not, however, unanimous. The dissent stated concern that the ruling will weaken the uncharged suspect exemption, impose an onerous burden on trial courts by requiring additional review of portions of records, and create an unworkable redaction standard that may not actually protect suspects’ identities.

How does Washington compare? Like Ohio’s Act, Washington’s Public Records Act exempts certain types of investigative, law enforcement and crime victim information from public inspection. Similarly, the Washington Supreme Court does not support a blanket investigative records exemption, finding that in some scenarios, the trial court should determine on a case-by-case basis whether nondisclosure of all or parts of a requested record is essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of privacy rights.

Ohio Supreme Court Holds City May Maintain 3X5 Cards for Record Management

A City of Cleveland law requires daily reporting by pawnbrokers of their transactions. For years, that reporting has been through the filing of 3X5 cards (double sided). A lower court had held that such an "antiquated" system violated the Ohio public record laws. The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. Like the Washington Public Records Act, the Court held that an Ohio city had no duty to maintain its records in a particular format, and was not required to create or provide access to nonexistent records. As a result, people seeking access to pawn records in Cleveland must play the cards they are dealt.

For more information, click HERE.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Holds Employee's Personal E-mails Not Public Records

On July 16, 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that a public employee's personal e-mails are not public records under that State's Public Records Law. Like Washington, Wisconsin has broad public disclosure laws. Or, as noted by the Supreme Court, "[i]f Wisconsin were not known as the Dairy State it could be known, and rightfully so, as the Sunshine State." But, the Court held personal e-mails "are not a part of government business," simply because they may be sent or received on a Wisconsin local government's e-mail and computer system.

This holding is similar to (and cites) a Washington Court of Appeals decision, Tiberino v. Spokane County, 103 Wn. App. 680, 13 P.3d 1104 (2000). There, the Washington court held the personal e-mails were "public records," and excessive personal e-mail use was a reason for discharge of a government employee. However, the personal e-mails were exempt from disclosure under Washington law. While the fact of excessive email use is of legitimate public concern, the actual content of the personal emails was not.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Release of Petition Signatures Under Washington's PRA

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit’s dismissal of a facial challenge to the release of signatures on an initiative petition to overturn Washington’s “Everything but Marriage Act.” Doe v. Reed 561 U.S. ____ (June 24, 2010)

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion in which five other justices joined and in which two other justices concurred. Justice Thomas dissented. 

Roberts pointed out that “the PRA is not a prohibition on speech, but instead a disclosure requirement. ‘[D]isclosure requirements may burden the ability to speak, but they . . . do not prevent anyone from speaking.’” Doe v. Reed Slip opinion at 7. But Roberts also pointed out that the Court’s decision dealt only with the facial challenge to the release, not with an “as applied” standard related to this particular petition, which could still be asserted by the plaintiffs in the District Court.

Justice Scalia, with his characteristic reference to history, concurred with the judgment and wrote to point out that the signers of the petition were engaging in a legislative act and that legislative actions in the United States were consistently considered to be actions taken in public. Even voting by the public was traditionally a public act, and secret ballot voting had only come to be generally accepted in the United States in the 1890s when most states adopted the Australian model of voting by secret ballot. Scalia noted that there was no constitutional basis for saying that a state could not decide to keep the identity of petition signers secret, but “It may be a bad idea to keep petition signatures secret. . . . Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Scalia, concurrence at 10.

Helping Hand? Make it a Handshake First to Ensure a Summary Report Fulfills Pending Document Requests

A number of municipalities have considered the issue, under the Washington Public Record Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, whether a public agency may create a new, summary of requested document(s) instead of providing the underlying documents actually requested. Apparently as a result of advice delivered at a recent seminar, some agencies believe they have the unilateral option to substitute a summary report instead of the requested source documents. 

But without an advance agreement or understanding (preferably confirmed in letter or other writing) with the requestor to substitute a summary report, the agency may end up being in violation of the PRA and subject to penalties.  The offer to create a summary (e.g., a compilation of financial information in contrast to the underlying records) may save the agency time and be much more helpful to the requestor.  However, creating a new document does not respond to a request for existing records.  Therefore, the better practice is to obtain the agreement of the requestor – in advance – that the summary report created in response to the request will fulfill that pending document request.

Note further, an agency has no obligation under the PRA to provide information or to produce new documents.  The PRA only requires the production for inspection and copying (if copies requested) of existing documents.  See, Bonamy v. City of Seattle, 92 Wn. App. 403, 409 (1998); Smith v. Okanogan County, 100 Wn. App. 7 (2000).

Jailhouse Joinder: State Supreme Court Rules Inmate Requesting Records is Necessary to Injunction Action Filed by Guards to Stop Release of Personal Information

In Burt v. Department of Corrections, __Wn.2d __, __P.3d__ (May 13, 2010, Case No. 80998-4), a plurality of the Washington Supreme Court ruled that a prison inmate was a necessary party to a public records injunction lawsuit filed against the Department of Corrections by corrections officers whose records had been requested by the inmate. Justice Sanders wrote a concurring opinion that the inmate was an indispensible party and agreeing that the injunction must be vacated to allow the trial court to conduct additional proceedings with the inmate as a party.

The Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, allows people named in requested public records to seek an injunction barring the release of public records if “such examination [of public records] would clearly not be in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably damage any person, or would substantially and irreparably damage vital governmental functions….”RCW 42.56.540. In late 2004, an inmate requested documents from the Department of Corrections that included employees’ “photographs, addresses, incomes, retirement and disability information, administrative grievances or internal investigations, and any other related document.”  The DOC employees filed suit against DOC seeking an injunction barring the records’ release. DOC openly agreed with the employees’ before the trial court.

The Court (and Justice Sanders) both questioned the trial court’s ability to hold an appropriate adversarial proceeding that would protect public policy favoring disclosure, particularly when the only parties present, DOC and its employees, both argued against disclosure. The dissent asserted that requiring the record requester’s participation is incorrect because a records requester is not automatically prejudiced by not participating in injunction proceedings, for example the balance of necessary joinder factors would be different in cases where the agency argued against an injunction.

Going forward, public agencies faced with a records-release injunction lawsuit should give careful consideration to ensuring the requester’s participation in that lawsuit to prevent duplicative hearings or unnecessary appeals that may result in attorney fees being paid to the requester.

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments from State of Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on April 28, 2010 in the case of Doe v. Reed [Sam Reed, Washington State's Secretary of State].  As we have previously blogged, the case addresses whether public release of referendum petition signatories under Washington’s Public Records Act violates First Amendment rights.  The justices sharply questioned the plaintiff's attorney, who sought to prevent release of the names of people who signed a referendum petition to require a public vote to overturn Washington’s “everything but marriage act.”  A Seattle Times article on the oral arguments including a public transcript is available here

U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Oral Argument Tomorrow From State of Washington

Tomorrow (April 28, 2010), the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Doe v. Reed – addressing the question of whether the release of the names of referendum petition signatories pursuant to Washington’s Public Records Act violates First Amendment rights.

The case involves the attempt to seek release of the names of people who signed a referendum petition to require a public vote to overturn the legislature’s enactment of Washington’s “everything but marriage act.”  The Secretary of State was poised to release the names, when a group named “Protect Marriage Washington” and two individual signatories to the referendum petition (John Doe #1 and #2) sought a preliminary injunction in Federal District Court to stop the release.  The District enjoined the release finding that it would impinge on First Amendment rights.  The Ninth Circuit heard expedited review of that ruling and reversed the decision on October 15, 2009 – before the election. Doe v. Reed, 586 F.3d 671 (9th Cir. 2009).  Four days later, however, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Ninth Circuit ruling, reinstated the District Court’s preliminary injunction and accepted review. Doe v. Reed, No. 09-559.

The Washington Attorney General  will argue the case tomorrow on behalf of the State’s Secretary of State,  and urge the Supreme Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit ruling.  The State’s position is that when people sign a referendum petition to substitute their view for that of the Governor and Legislature, they are engaging in a public legislative process and have no expectation of privacy when they sign such a referendum petition. 

Divided Court Examines Exemption for Law Enforcement Investigative Reports

David Koenig, a regular plaintiff in Public Records Act cases, sought certain records from Thurston County. The records were a Victim Impact Statement and a Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative (SSOSA) evaluation. The documents are used in evaluation and sentencing of sex offenders.

The trial court ordered the documents sealed. But Koenig’s request had been sent to the Prosecutor’s Office, and not to the court. The Prosecutor’s Office denied disclosure under RCW 42.56.240(1), which exempts from public inspection and copying,

“specific investigative records compiled by investigative, law enforcement, and penology agencies….the non-disclosure of which is essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy."

The Washington Court of Appeals ruled, on April 6, 2010, in a divided opinion that Victim Impact Statements are exempt under the PRA. But, the court held that SSOSA evaluations must be disclosed after redaction of any identifying information regarding the victim and certain other third parties. Notwithstanding the difficulty in determining the exemption from disclosure of these particular public records, the court determined that it had no discretion regarding the award of penalties to Koenig under RCW 42.56.550(4). The matter was remanded to the trial court to set the amount of penalties that Koenig may receive.

To view the court's decision, click HERE.
 

Case Closed: State High Court Sets Highest PRA Penalty on Record Ending Yousoufian Marathon

Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, __ Wn.2d __, __ P.3d __ (March 25, 2010), is the fifth appellate court decision in a public records dispute that began with a request for records related to a proposed new sports stadium in 1997. The Washington Supreme Court recalled the mandate it had already issued following its 2009 opinion, 165 Wn.2d 439, 200 P.3d 232 (Jan. 15, 2009), and now modifies and affirms the Court of Appeals decision found at 137 Wn.App. 69, 151 P.3d 243 (2007). The final issue was the amount of daily penalties a trial court should award for King County’s violations of the Public Records Act, ch. 42.56 RCW. In this 5-4 opinion, the majority laid out a set of seven nonexclusive “mitigating factors” and nine nonexclusive “aggravating factors” for trial court consideration in determining the appropriate daily penalty from the mandatory statutory range of $5-$100. RCW 42.56.550. The chief considerations are the compliance effort by the agency and the impact of the agency’s action—with the higher penalties reserved for those cases in which some form of “sting” appears necessary to force the agency to pay attention to its disclosure obligations.

This round of appeals began when the trial court decided the daily penalty should be $15. The appellate court reversed, and remanded for a higher daily penalty determination by the trial court, whose discretion is virtually unlimited by statute. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, but with a twist. In a highly unusual decision criticized by the dissent, the majority declined to issue yet another mandate to the trial court, but instead determined the daily penalty itself -- $45 per day. The resulting penalty -- $371,000.00 -‑ is the highest PRA judgment on record in this State. As the dissent notes, it is not readily apparent how the Supreme Court applied its factors to come up with the $45 daily penalty. While the majority’s goal was to guide trial courts and thus limit the number of PRA appeals, it remains to be seen whether the nonexclusive 16-factor approach will achieve that end.

 

Public Records can only be Destroyed in Accordance with Appropriate Records Retention and Destruction Policies

The preservation and destruction of public records is governed by Chapter 40.14 RCW.  Local Governments are responsible for adopting appropriate records retention policies and procedures.  The local records committee establishes retention schedules for different types of local governments that specify retention periods applicable to different categorizes of public records.  These schedules are available on the Washington State Archives website.  Local governments should also consider other applicable retention schedules.  For example, public hospital districts should consider the Medicare conditions of participation and the Joint Commission requirements, among others.  Failure to adopt and implement appropriate records retention and destruction policies and procedures may result in financial penalties and even in possible criminal sanctions because the destruction or mutilation of a public record is a felony under certain circumstances.  See Chapter 40.16 RCW.  Individual officers and employees should make sure that they adhere to the retention schedule with respect to documents that they maintain, such as any email that constitutes a public record (whether or not the email is on a government, personal or business computer).

Court of Appeals Declines to Recognize Tort Cause of Action for Damages for Negligent Disclosure of Unsubstantiated Allegations of Misconduct

In Corey v. Pierce County, 2010 WL 255956 (Court of Appeals, Div. 1 Jan. 25, 2010), the Court of Appeals reversed a trial court order allowing a claim for damages for negligent release of unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct by a deputy prosecutor. The former deputy prosecutor alleged that disclosure of allegations of misconduct violated her right to privacy. The court held that protection against disclosure by an agency subject to the public records laws must be based upon the Public Records Act (PRA), RCW 42.56. The PRA provides for an action to order publication of information that would be offensive to a reasonable person and not of legitimate concern to the public. RCW 42.56.050; RCW 42.56.230(2). The PRA provides for injunctive relief to prevent this disclosure. RCW 42.56.540. The PRA does not, however, provide a cause of action for damages. The court declined to recognize a common law right of action.

WAPRO Public Records 101 Seminar, January 26, 2010

The Washington Association of Public Records Officers (WAPRO) is sponsoring an all-day seminar entitled Public Records 101 in Lakewood on Tuesday, January 26, 2010. Steve DiJulio, a member of our firm’s Public Disclosure Team, is participating on a panel in the afternoon. The panel will review the latest Public Records Act court opinions and provide insights and ideas on compliance with the Act. 

The WAPRO agenda and registration form contains more information about the training.   

Sunshine Committee Issues its Annual Report to the Legislature

On November 13 the Sunshine Committee issued its third annual report to the legislature. The Committee adopted recommendations to retain, modify, or eliminate 9 exemptions to the Public Records Act. Among the Committee's recommendations are that the legislature retain exemptions relating to certain records filed with the utilities and transportation commission or Attorney General, including records containing commercially valuable information, and that the legislature eliminate the exemptions that relate to personal records of the legislature, including correspondence and email. The Committee also recommended that all future exemptions be limited to a term of five years, after which they would be examined on a case by case basis.

The Committee's full report including all of its recommendations is available here.

Governor Gregoire signed an executive order on December 3 proposing that the legislature eliminate the Sunshine Committee.

State Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee Allows Judges to Blog

In a recent Ethics Opinion, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee authorized blogging by judges. The Ethics Opinion advises, however, that any judge that engages in blogging should consider posting a disclaimer that the opinions expressed are only those of the author and should not be imputed to other judges and should outline constraints that the judge is subject to in order to avoid ex parte communication. 

See our October 23, 2009 blog entry regarding the City of Federal Way v. Koenig case for information regarding the applicability of the Public Records Act to the judiciary. 

Kitsap County Parks Department Takes Down Facebook Site In Light of Secretary of State's Records Management Advisory

The Kitsap Sun recently reported that on October 28, 2009, the Kitsap County Parks and Recreation Department’s blog (launched September 8, 2009 and hosted on a County intern’s Facebook site) was taken down. According to the article, the decision to take the blog down stemmed partially from the electronic records management advisory issued by the Secretary of State’s office. See our November 4, 2009 blog posting for more information regarding the advisory. The other reasons cited include the need to update the County’s communication policy to cover statements made by employees on third-party sites and the County’s information technology systems so the County can track records created through various social media.

Kitsap County’s decision follows a similar decision made by Alachua County in Florida. According to the Gainesville Sun, Alachua County recently put a ban on staff conducting any county business using text messages – whether using a county-issued cellular phone or a personal cell phone. The reason cited for the ban is the fact that text messages are public records and the county’s computer system has no way to track and save the messages.

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.

WA Supreme Court Reaffirms that Public Records Act Does Not Apply to the Judiciary

Over 20 years ago, the Washington State Supreme Court held in Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300 (1986 ) that the State's Public Records Act (PRA) does not apply to court case files because the judiciary is not included in the PRA’s definition of a State “agency.” On October 15, 2009 , the Supreme Court reaffirmed its Nast holding in City of Federal Way v. Koenig, 2009 WL 3298055. 

The Koenig case began in February 2008.  David Koenig, a regular claimant against Washington local governments, requested from the Federal Way Municipal Court all public records related to the resignation of Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl .  His request  included  correspondence to and from Presiding Judge Michael Morgan. The City of Federal Way provided 183 pages of documents .  But, citing Nast, the City refused to provide the requested correspondence on the basis that the municipal court was not subject to the PRA.  Koenig argued that Nast was wrongly decided and persisted in pursuing his requests. 

The City filed a lawsuit and requested a declaratory ruling that the municipal court was not subject to the PRA.  In September 2008 the trial court entered an order finding for the City.  Koenig appealed that decision directly to the Washington State Supreme Court.

The  Supreme Court affirmed the Nast holding.  The Court emphasized that over the years the legislature had amended the PRA many times, without changing the definition of agency.  Without a legislative change, the doctrine of stare decisis (to adhere to precedent) was applied  by the Court to not disturb the Nast court's holding that the PRA does not apply to the judiciary.  As a result, the Court held that the court records requested by Koenig were not subject to disclosure by the City of Federal Way under the PRA. 

Ninth Circuit Allows Release of Signatures on Referendum Petition

On Thursday, October 15, 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order overturning a decision of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Washington that barred the Washington Secretary of State from any public release of documents showing names and contact information of referendum petition signers. The particular case involved Washington Referendum Measure No. 71 (“R-71”). See our September 25, 2009 blog posting for more information regarding the earlier ruling of the District Court.

On the same day, the Secretary of State's Election Division issued a narrative explaining why the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, treats initiative and referendum petitions as public records subject to disclosure under the Washington Public Records Act.

Despite the Ninth Circuit ruling, the names have not been released due to a temporary restraining order granted by a Thurston County Superior Court judge blocking the State from releasing initiative petitions under the Public Records Act. The District Court decision was issued in response to a lawsuit, seeking to stop the release of petitions, brought by Tim Eyman, a well known sponsor of initiatives and referendums.

 

Web 2.0 Risks: A 'Tweet' OPMA Violation?

A 'Tweet' OPMA violation?

Public perception counts, technical compliance may not be sufficient. Web 2.0 creates risks and challenges.

"'Tweets' bring possible illegal meeting to light. 
Twitter Post reveal a gathering of Mukilteo
City Council members after their official meeting.
"

Headlines like this recent headline in the Everett Herald hurt public trust, even when no laws are broken.  A post on the Open Records Blog (scroll down to the third post) demonstrates how at least some members of the public will react.

To ensure compliance with the OPMA, the Public Records Act and the retention laws, elected officials and public employees must make sure they understand all of their legal requirements before they use Web 2.0 sites. 

Here are some additional resources on the use of Web 2.0 sites by Elected officials and public employees:

City Council Handbook Wiki

Gov Social Media Wiki

Web 2.0: Staying Out of the Headlines

As illustrated  in this Everett Herald story, a Mukilteo councilmember’s micro-blog serves to remind us about a lesson public officers and employees have been told for decades.

Common Sense Advice Over the Decades

1969: Don’t write anything down that you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1979: Don’t record anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1989: Don’t put anything in an email you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

1999: Don’t take pictures of anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the paper.

2009: Don’t tweet or post anything you don’t want to see on the front page.
 

Courts recognize the importance of efficient government in two new PRA decisions

In 1972, when state voters enacted the Public Disclosure Act, they made a Declaration of Policy, providing:

mindful of the right of individuals to privacy and of the desirability of the efficient administration of government, full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.

RCW 42.17.010(11) (emphasis added).  The Public Records Act (PRA) was a component of the Public Disclosure Act, and later separated into a separate provision of State law.

In two recent opinions from Division I of the Washington State Court of Appeals, the Court has rejected claims under the PRA that would have interfered with the efficient administration of government.

In  Koenig v. Pierce County, the Court recognized that counties are made up of several distinct agencies. As a result, when Mr. Koenig made a public records request to the Office of the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, the Prosecutor's Office was not required to search for records in the Sherriff’s Office.  

In ACLU v. City of Seattle, the court held at under the PRA (at RCW 42.56.280), a city does not have to release records related to union contract negotiations while those negotiations are ongoing. The state voters had approved an exemption from the general disclosure obligation when non-disclosure serves the public interest. Here, in applying that exemption, the Court noted:

“Public scrutiny of contract issues discussed prior to completing negotiations might be misconstrued, and disclosure would hinder a vital part of the bargaining process—the free exchange of views, opinions, and proposals.”

 

City of Prosser Settles PRA Suit for $175,000

The City of Prosser provides the latest example of how the Public Records Act can be very profitable for some.  The City has agreed to pay a requester $175,000 to settle a PRA lawsuit.  As recorded by theYakima Herald, the requester caught the City up in 11 mistakes after making 213 requests.  The PRA requires strict compliance and puts no limits on the number of requests a person can make at no cost to the requester.  

Taxpayers, of course, will pay the tab.  And this may not be the end of it -- the requester has already warned "They've got to be fully prepared to go the next round." 

Court: $500,000 for errors related to a single Public Records Act request

Update July 13, 2009

Here is another story/editorial from the TNT on this case: "L&I, Justice Sanders run up the bill."  Even the TNT notes the harsh nature of the L&I judgment:

A half-million dollars does seem stiff, given that L&I did not contest that it was at fault for withholding the records. An agency spokesman told The Olympian that an employee had failed to take proper action in response to the records request.

Original Post

As noted in this Olympian article, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries was recently ordered to pay $500,000 because of errors related to a single Public Records Act Request. This case demonstrates that the failure to properly respond to a single public records request can have significant economic consequences.  One consequence of this judgment will be a significant increase in electrical inspection fees, because it is public dollars that will pay this judgment.

"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.

"Death by a Thousand FOIAs"

Here is an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal:  "Why Palin Quit Death by a Thousand FOIAs" The editorial highlights that public records laws can be abused to paralyze a government agency or a public office holder:

This situation developed because Alaska's transparency laws allow anyone to file Freedom of Information Act requests. While normally useful, in the hands of political opponents FOIA requests can become a means to bog down a target in a bureaucratic quagmire, thanks to the need to comb through records and respond by a strict timetable. ... Since Ms. Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, some 150 FOIA requests have been filed and her office has been targeted for investigation by everyone from the FBI to the Alaska legislature.”

As bad as this may sound, at least Alaska law -- like the law in most states -- allows the state to charge for search time after giving each requester a taxpayer-subsidized five hours a month for free, which serves as a disincentive to anyone seeking to abuse the law by making large requests. Agencies in Washington, however, cannot charge for search time, which makes the Public Records Act an even more powerful weapon in this state for persons who may want to target an agency or official. And while the vast majority of requesters act in good faith, even one person can paralyze a city or other agency.

(Note, the editorial also highlights the numerous ethics complaints that have led to a half-million dollar attorney-fee bill, which also played a big factor in Palin’s decision to resign.)

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"

 

 

Open Government in the News: Washington State

Cities Win in Two Recent Public Records Act Cases

Division I and Division II of the Washington State Court of Appeals both issued decisions in favor of local governments seeking to comply with the Public Records Act (PRA). 

In Beal, Cummings, Rasmussen & Wingard v. City of Seattle, Division I held that the City of Seattle did not have to treat an oral request made at a planning meeting as a PRA request because under the circumstances, there was no reason for the City to recognize that it was a PRA request. 

In Koenig v. City of Lakewood, Division II held that the City properly redacted records pursuant to the Criminal Records Privacy Act and the PRA.  It also rejected the requester's claim that he was entitled to additional penalties and attorney fees. 

Washington State Supreme Court rules in Morgan v. City of Federal Way

Approximately 48 hours after oral argument, a unanimous Washington State Supreme Court issued an order in Morgan v. City of Federal Way that authorized the City of Federal Way to release the "Stephson Report."  An opinion will follow in the next few months.  (The order was slightly revised on Friday -- here is the final amended order.)  This is the relief sought by the City and the Tacoma News Tribune. 

Here is an analysis of the order from the Supreme Court of Washington Blog by EFF. 

Here are posts on the ruling at the Bellingham Herald,  Washington Policy Blog, the Og-Blog and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press blog.

Foster Pepper represented the City of Federal Way in this case.

Oral Argument in the Washington State Supreme Court (video)

Update

Steve Maynard, the requester in Morgan, summarizes oral arguments in this TNT article: "Attorneys, Supreme Court justices joust over Federal Way judge investigation." 

Here is a TNT editorial on the Morgan case:   "FWay court probe should be public"

Here's a nice summary of the issues in both Morgan and Koenig from the Supreme Court of Washington Blog by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. 

Original Post

The Washington State Supreme Court arguments for Morgan v. City of Federal Way and City of Federal Way v. Koenig (like all arguments) were televised and available on the web on TVW.   For more information on the issues in the case, see this post

Here are the videos: 

Morgan v. City of Federal Way

John Schochet, representing Judge Morgan, argues first. 

James Beck, representing the Tacoma News Tribune, starts at 17:20.

Ramsey Ramerman, representing the City of Federal Way, starts at 25:10.

John Schochet's rebuttal starts at 38:45. 

City of Federal Way v. Koenig

William Crittenden, representing Mr. Koenig, starts.

Ramsey Ramerman, representing the City of Federal Way, begins at 13:20.

Mr. Crittenden's rebuttal begins at 30:45.

 

 

The Presumption of Openness

Update May 31, 2009

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Memorandum For Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies provides a nice summary of what the presumption of openness means.  The Attorney General identifies three ingredients:

1. Only assert an exemption if nondisclosure serves the exemption’s public purpose.

2. When possible, redact exempt information rather than withhold an entire document.

3. Never assert an exemption merely to hide mistakes or because of abstract concerns.

Here is what the memo actual states:

             First, an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally. I strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information. An agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption.

             Second, whenever an agency determines that it cannot make full disclosure of a requested record, it must consider whether it can make partial disclosure. Agencies should always be mindful that the FOIA requires them to take reasonable steps to segregate and release nonexempt information. Even if some parts of a record must be withheld, other parts either may not be covered by a statutory exemption, or may be covered only in a technical sense unrelated to the actual impact of disclosure.

             At the same time, the disclosure obligation under the FOIA is not absolute. The Act provides exemptions to protect, for example, national security, personal privacy, privileged records, and law enforcement interests. But as the President stated in his memorandum, "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."
 

ORIGINAL POST

One way to tell a good public records law from a bad law is that a good law starts with a presumption that all records are open and then defines exceptions.  A bad law will presume the opposite and instead define what records have to be disclosed. 

Washington law has always included the presumption of disclosure.  Here is a story about South Dakota, which just amended its public records law to include the presumption of disclosure. 

Washington law codifies this presumption in two provisions of the Public Records Act:

RCW 42.56.550(1) provides "The burden of proof shall be on the agency to establish that refusal to permit public inspection and copying is in accordance with a statute that exempts or prohibits disclosure in whole or in part of specific information or records."

RCW 42.56.030 then heightens the burden an agency will have to meet before it can withhold a record by providing that the Act "shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed" to promote the Act's stated purpose of allowing the public to stay informed about government.   

The result of these two provisions is that an agency must disclose any public record, unless it can prove that under a narrow interpretation of a statutory exemption, the record is exempt from disclosure. 

"Open government laws are designed to build public trust"

Here is an editorial on the "torture memos" from the Olympian written by the editor of this blog, Ramsey Ramerman.  It was inspired by George Will's recent statement on ABC's This Week:  "The problem with transparency is that it’s transparent for the terrorists as well.”

Update 5/13:  Here's the Og-Blog's take on the editorial.  As it correctly notes, President Obama's administration has not been as transparent as many had hoped, particularly with regards to the Federal Reserve and the AIG bailout.