In 2010, Michael Mockovak was found guilty of soliciting and attempting to murder his business partner, among other charges. While incarcerated, Mockovak filed suit under the Washington Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”), against King County and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, seeking all documents referring to the immigration status of an informant, Kultin, who helped secure Mockovak’s conviction. Although records were disclosed, many were heavily redacted to protect attorney work product. The agencies also withheld Kultin’s National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”) Report, arguing they were barred from disclosing it by federal statute. In affirming the trial court’s decision in favor of the agencies, the Washington Court of Appeals addressed a number of discovery and PRA issues. Mockovak v. King County, No. 74459-3-I (Dec. 19, 2016).

The PRA Does Not Override Federal Touhy Regulations.  Mockovak’s convictions arose out of a joint federal-state investigation conducted by the Puget Sound Safe Streets Violent Crimes Task Force. The task force included both federal and state law enforcement officers specially appointed to federal positions. Mockovak argued that certain task force documents became subject to the PRA when task force member Carver (also a Seattle Police Department detective) “used” the documents, citing the Washington Supreme Court decision in Concerned Ratepayers Association v. Public Utility District No. 1 of Clark County, 138 Wn.2d 950, 983 P.2d 635 (1999). While the appellate court agreed the task force documents likely qualified as public records under the PRA, that alone did not require disclosure. Because the documents were created by and belonged to a federal agency, the PRA did not permit a Washington state agency to release them in contravention of the federal agency’s regulations. Federal agencies are statutorily authorized to adopt regulations – known as Touhy regulations – governing agency administration, including use and disclosure of records. See 5 U.S.C. § 301.

Continue Reading Attempted Murder For Hire And Public Records

On August 27, 2015, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed lower courts in holding “that text messages sent and received by a public employee in the employee’s official capacity are public records of the employer, even if the employee uses a private cell phone.” Nissen v. Pierce County

The case arose when a sheriff’s detective sent requests to Pierce County for records related to the County Prosecutor. One request was for cellular telephone records for the Prosecutor’s personal phone. There was no dispute that the Prosecutor personally bought the phone, pays for its monthly service, and sometimes uses it in the course of his job.

The Court’s unanimous decision required the Prosecutor to obtain a transcript of the content of all the text messages at issue, review them, and produce any that are public records to the County. “The County must then review those messages just as it would any other public record-and apply any applicable exemptions, redact information if necessary, and produce the records and any exemption log.”

Continue Reading Text Messages on Private Devices Subject to Washington Public Records Act

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.”

In Bichindaritz v. University of Washington, Division One of the Court of Appeals reversed a $723,290.50 penalty and $102,958.03 attorney fee award for violations of the Public Records Act by the University of Washington.  The trial court had concluded that the University’s production of documents to the requestor, a former employee who had sued the University, was not in good faith and that the University waited too long to produce records it had already assembled but had not yet reviewed.  The University appealed.

In particular, the University challenged the trial court’s conclusion that as soon as the University had assembled the responsive documents, they were ready to be produced to the requestor.  The Court of Appeals agreed with the University, explaining that the Public Records Act requires that responses to records requests be made “promptly,” but also expressly recognizes that an agency may need additional time to determine whether any part of the information requested is exempt.  See RCW 42.56.520.  As the court summarized:

Continue Reading Court Of Appeals Reverses Large Public Records Act Penalty Imposed On University Of Washington

In an unpublished opinion, Center for Justice v. Arlington School District, No. 627263-1-I (Sep. 4, 2012), a Washington Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s conclusion that a school district’s “special meetings” were not “regular meetings” because they did not occur in accordance with a schedule declared by statute or rule. The school district regularly held bi-monthly “business meetings,” which were properly noticed as “regular meetings” under the OPMA. It often held what it called “study sessions” just prior to the regularly scheduled business meetings, following the OPMA notice requirements for “special meetings.” The Center for Justice (CFJ) argued that, because of their frequency, the study sessions should have been noticed as regular meetings. Noting that the OPMA did not define “regular meetings” for agencies other than those of the state, the court interpreted the statute as anticipating two types of meetings: those with dates fixed by rule or law (regular meetings), and all others (special and emergency meetings). Because the dates of the study sessions were not fixed by rule or law, they were not regular meetings and the District’s use of the “special meeting” notice provisions was proper.

The District had conceded violations of the OPMA relating to 21 executive sessions it had commenced without first opening a meeting. The trial court granted judgment to CFJ and awarded its attorney fees, reduced by a “degree of success” it calculated by dividing 21 sessions by 144 total alleged violations, or a 14.6% success rate. The appellate court concluded that because CFJ had alleged multiple violations for each session, the trial court had committed an arithmetic error—essentially dividing the number of rotten apples by the total number of allegedly rotten apple seeds—to produce a meaningless “percentage.” The court remanded for a re-calculation of the fee award.

The appellate court also awarded attorney fees to CFJ on appeal for establishing that the trial court had erred in its fee calculation. Although the District prevailed on the remainder of CFJ’s claims, because CFJ’s appeal was not frivolous, the District received no fee award.
 

The Colorado Supreme Court recently held that the Denver Post could not obtain records from the personal cell phone of former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter.  Denver Post Corp. v. Ritter, —P.3d —, 2011 WL 2449325 (Colo. 2011).  The Court found that the newspaper did not clearly state a claim that the cell phone bills were public records under the Colorado Open Records Act (“CORA”).

Governor Ritter had a practice of using two cell phones. The first phone was a state-paid Blackberry, which Ritter used almost exclusively for email. The Governor paid for the second phone, which he used for both personal calls and calls he made in his role as Governor.

Continue Reading Denver Post Denied Access to Former Colorado Governor’s Personal Cell Phone Records

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

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.

Continue Reading Pennsylvania County Must Disclose Contractor’s Employment Records – Even Though County Doesn’t Have Them

In this era of WikiLeaks’ disclosure of secret State Department and military cables, the question of what is and what is not “confidential” government information has become more opaque.

Conflicting viewpoints on the issue of what is “confidential” also arise in the local government context, as reported in the February 28, 2011 edition of the Everett Herald: “Legality of disclosing executive session information not an easy call.”

The Everett Herald reported on the censure of an Everett School Board member for disclosing information from a closed, executive session about a potential building purchase. But, the newspaper noted there is a real dispute between the school board and the censured school board member about whether the information she discussed potential acquisition of an office building for multiple educational uses was already public knowledge.

Continue Reading “Confidential” But Is It?

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.

Continue Reading King County Council Acts to Address Social Media and Public Record Laws