A Washington Court of Appeals decision demonstrates there are two ways a public records act requestor can become a “prevailing party” under the Washington Public Records Act, chapter 42.56 RCW (“PRA”). Pierce v. City of Des Moines (August 8, 2011). If the agency wrongfully withholds records and the lawsuit is reasonably necessary to obtain nonexempt records, the requester is a “prevailing party.” But as Pierce holds, under RCW 42.56.550(4), an agency can also be liable for unreasonably delaying production of records.
In Pierce, a prisoner sought certain records from the city. Des Moines did not respond with a five-day letter as required by RCW 42.56.520, but responded “more than five business days” later. Des Moines disclosed the records prior to the prisoner lawsuit but “several weeks” after the prisoner had submitted a “Tort Claim” for damages. The “Tort Claim” was submitted several months after the prisoner’s request was submitted; the prisoner claimed that his letters and calls were ignored in that intervening period.
Several months after the records were disclosed, Pierce filed a lawsuit against Des Moines. The complaint alleged that Des Moines was liable “for failing to turn over public requested records in a reasonable amount of time.” On motion for summary judgment, the city successfully argued to the trial court that Pierce could not be a “prevailing party” entitled to daily penalties and attorney’s fees under RCW 42.56.550, because his lawsuit was not reasonably necessary to force disclosure of the records. In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals stated as a matter of statutory construction there is a second way in which a requestor can be deemed to be a “prevailing party.” RCW 42.56.550(4) provides, in pertinent part:
(4) Any person who prevails against an agency in any action in the courts seeking the right to inspect or copy any public record or the right to receive a response to a public record request within a reasonable amount of time shall be awarded all costs, including reasonable attorney fees, incurred in connection with such legal action. In addition, it shall be within the discretion of the court to award such person an amount not to exceed one hundred dollars for each day that he or she was denied the right to inspect or copy said public record.
Prior published decisions and the model PRA rules issued by the Attorney General had not dealt directly with these points. For example, WAC 44-14-08004(7) states that “A requestor is the ‘prevailing‘ party when he or she obtains a judgment in his or her favor, the suit was reasonably necessary to obtain the record, or a wrongfully withheld record was provided for another reason.” The rule is not, of course, incorrect, but it does not specify that a requestor can “prevail” by showing unreasonable delay in records production.
An earlier case, Daines v. Spokane County, 111 Wn.App. 342, 44 P.3d 909 (2002), held that a requestor who already has records is not a “prevailing party” in an action to require disclosure of those records. But no prior published decision dealt with the question whether an unreasonable delay prior to production of records is actionable and can give rise to statutory penalties and attorney’s fees. See, WA Court of Appeals Decision in Zink v. City of Mesa Has Many Public Records Act Lessons for Municipalities, posted on this blog on July 22, 2011.