The Washington Constitution, Article VI, Section 6 states: “The Legislature shall provide for such method of voting as will secure to every elector absolute secrecy in preparing and depositing his ballot.” This provision was central to a Washington Court of Appeals decision on July 13, 2015, rejecting a public records act request for “copies of electronic or digital image files” of ballots. White v. Skagit County and Island County, ___ Wn. App. ___, No. 72028-7 (Jul. 13, 2015).

Following the 2013 Washington general election, Timothy White sent public records requests for all ballots to all counties in the state. The counties denied the requests and White sued. The Washington Public Records Act does not expressly exempt ballots from disclosure. It does, however, include an “other statute” provision that incorporates exemptions to disclosure that are based on laws outside of the Act. The court applied the “other statute” exemption in light of the comprehensive statutory scheme restricting access to ballots. The court concluded that the exemption “is necessary to protect the ‘vital government function’ of secret ballot elections.” Two weeks earlier, a different division of the Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion in White v. Clark County, ___ Wn. App. ___, No. 46081-5-2 (June 30, 2015).

Of further note, the court rejected White’s claim that Skagit County should be penalized for failing to respond to his request for “the original metadata and Properties of the electronic or digital files requested.” The court concluded that it was not unreasonable for the county to ask for an explanation of the electronic files requested. The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that “White’s failure to respond to the request for clarification excused the County from trying to explain more specifically why the ‘metadata and Properties’ were exempt.”

As part of its 2014 Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI), the Seattle City Council requested that the City Clerk, the City Attorney’s Office and various executive departments form a PDR [Public Disclosure request] Task Force to: (i) identify shortcomings in the City’s current approach to fulfilling PDRs; and (ii) make recommendations regarding appropriate City-wide policies. See SLI 13-2-A-1. The Task Force briefing outline for the City Council (January 5, 2015)  is available here.

Included in the preliminary recommendations are:

  1. Create a Citywide Public Records Act (CPRA) program to centrally manage the public disclosure function for complex requests.
  2. Strengthen support for Public Disclosure Officers.
  3. Develop centralized PDR Portal & tracking system that allows public access.
  4. Expand the PRA training curriculum.
  5. Measure customer satisfaction.
     

On November 25, 2014, the Everett [WA] Herald reported that a man has requested records from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office dating to July 4, 1776.  Perhaps the requestor was not much of a student of history, as Snohomish County was created by the Washington Territorial Legislature on January 14, 1861 (out of Island County).  Click here for the story.

Unfortunately, the Washington Public Record Act (PRA) does not provide ready relief to public agencies facing such absurd requests.  Only if the requester is an inmate is there opportunity for relief.  See RCW 42.56.565 authorizing injunctions to prohibit requests “made to harass or intimidate the agency or its employees.”
 

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.

Continue Reading Case Law Update: “fullest assistance,” redactions for effective law enforcement, disclosure of non-agency phone logs

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Continue Reading Under the PRA, Non-Physicians are Peers of Physicians

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.  

Today’s Washington Court of Appeals decision in Levy v. Snohomish County stems from Inmate Percy Levy’s less-than-clear records request to the County Prosecutor’s office:

“While pending trial back in 2002… my attorney provided me with a statement made by my co-defendant Breena Johnson. I want a copy of that statement.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the designated public records officer sought clarification from Levy, because the records officer was neither Levy nor his attorney. Today’s decision again points out that agencies managing public records requests are allowed to seek clarification and don’t need to be mind readers.

Continue Reading Clarifying Records Request Clarifications – All Clear? Court of Appeals Rules Confused County was Reasonably Confused

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.

Continue Reading Caught Playing Hooky? Using Public Records Requests to Identify Wisconsin Teachers That “Called in Sick” During February Protests