Washington Supreme Court Orders Attorney Fees And Costs To Requester For Agency's Violation Of PRA's "Brief Explanation" Requirement
The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that when an agency withholds or redacts records, its response “shall include a statement of the specific exemption authorizing the withholding of the record (or part) and a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record withheld.” RCW 42.56.210(3). In a 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held in City of Lakewood v. Koenig that an agency’s violation of this requirement entitles the requester to attorney fees and costs, regardless of whether the records were properly withheld.
In this case, David Koenig had requested records from the City of Lakewood relating to certain police officer incidents. In its response, the city redacted, among other things, driver’s license numbers from the records, citing to various statutory provisions without additional explanation. In a majority opinion written by Justice Steven González, the court found that the city’s response violated the PRA because the city either failed to cite a specific exemption or failed to explain how the particular statute applied to the redacted driver’s license numbers in the specific records produced. As a result, “the burden was shifted to the requester to sift through the statutes cited by the city and parse out possible exemption claims.” Opinion at 7-8. Because the PRA provides that costs and reasonable attorney fees shall be awarded to a requester for vindicating “the right to receive a response,” the court held that Koenig was entitled to his attorney fees and costs, including those on appeal. Id. at 10-12.
In explaining its decision, the court observed that the level of detail an agency needs to provide will depend on both the nature of the exemption and the nature of the document or information. For example, if it is clear on the face of a record what type of information has been redacted and that this type of information is categorically exempt, citing to a specific statutory provision may be sufficient. But for other exemptions, including the “other” statute exemptions that the city cited, “additional explanation is necessary to determine whether the exemption is properly invoked.” Id. at 8.
In a dissenting opinion joined by three other justices, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen asserted that the majority’s decision imposed an additional burden on agencies to provide enough explanation to prove its claimed exemptions are correct, which the PRA does not require. The dissent distinguished the facts in Sanders v. State, 169 Wn.2d 827 (2010), observing that, here, “the city explained what information it actually withheld—driver’s license numbers—and it explained why—the cited statutes.” Dissenting Opinion at 2. While the dissent acknowledged that attorney fees may be warranted if an agency fails to identify a record or give its reason for withholding, the dissent would have held that attorney fees are not independently warranted if the agency has identified the record and given its reason for redacting or withholding the record.