Over the course of representing her client, attorney Erica Krikorian sent two Public Records Act (“PRA”) requests to Monroe School District, the defendant in her client’s lawsuit alleging civil rights violations. Krikorian then negotiated a settlement with the district on the civil rights claim in which her client released any potential PRA claims. Krikorian, asserting that the PRA claims were hers, subsequently filed suit against the district for violations of the PRA. In Creer Legal v. Monroe School District, No. 76814-0-I (August 13, 2018), Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of Krikorian’s lawsuit. The court held that Krikorian, as her client’s agent, did not own the PRA cause of action and could not assert the claim once it was released by her client in settlement.
The Washington Court of Appeals, Division One, concluded that emails of University of Washington professors relating to faculty union organizing were not “public records” under Washington’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW. Although the emails were sent to UW email addresses, the Court concluded that emails relating to faculty concerns and unionizing efforts were not created “within the scope of employment” and were therefore not “public records” under the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Nissen v. Pierce County.
In Nissen, the court addressed text messages on an employee’s private cell phone, and determined that records on private cell phones were only “public records” if created within the scope of employment. The Court of Appeals’ new decision applies that test to records sent and received from a public employees’ official work email account, retained on a public agency’s server.
In the third appeal related to a 2003 public records request, the Washington Court of Appeals concluded that in setting a penalty for violations of the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), the trial court did not abuse its discretion in considering the small size of the City of Mesa and the burden the penalty imposed per capita on its taxpayers.
Courts have authority to enter penalties of up to 100 dollars per day for wrongful withholding of public records under the PRA. The Washington Supreme Court has adopted a sixteen-factor test to determine the size of the penalty. One of these factors is deterrence considering the size of the agency and the facts of the case.
The Washington Court of Appeals, Division One, has held that death-scene images of Kurt Cobain are exempt from public disclosure under the Washington Public Records Act, ch. 42.56 RCW (“PRA”). Lee v. City of Seattle.
Richard Lee, a “local conspiracy theorist who believes that Mr. Cobain was murdered,” made a public records request to the City of Seattle for the investigative file regarding Cobain’s death. The City provided records but withheld death-scene photographs. Lee filed a lawsuit alleging that withholding these photographs violated the PRA. Cobain’s daughter and widow intervened in the lawsuit. The trial court concluded the records were properly withheld and granted the Cobains’ motion for a permanent injunction to prevent release of the photographs.
Under Washington state law, “the records of a person confined in jail shall be held in confidence” and made available only to criminal justice agencies as provided by law. RCW 70.48.100(2). In Zabala v. Okanogan County, the requester submitted five Public Records Act requests to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office and the Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. In combination, the requests sought any and all records, created in the last three years, related to monitored or recorded phone calls of inmates in the Chelan, Douglas, or Okanogan County jails, including voicemail, e-mail, audio, notes, reports, transcripts, arguments, pleadings, motions, briefs, memos, and letters. The agencies denied the requests as not being for identifiable records and because any responsive records were exempt from public disclosure.
The Washington Court of Appeals, Division Two, held that a Puyallup City Council member’s Facebook posts were not “public records” under Washington’s Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW, because the council member did not prepare the records within the scope of her official capacity as a member of the City Council.
The litigation centered on plaintiff Arthur West’ public records request to the City asking for all records sent to or received by City Council Member Julie Door’s “Friends of Julie Door” Facebook site. The City conducted a search of its own records and located one email, which it disclosed. The City did not disclose any posts on the “Friends of Julie Door” site.
The Washington Court of Appeals declined to decide what it called an “interesting and important issue” regarding an agency’s obligation under the Washington Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW (PRA), to obtain records from a third party in response to a public records request. Because the record and briefing on appeal left “unanswered factual questions,” the court vacated the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC).
In Baker v. Department of Corrections, No. 34967-5-III (Wash. App. June 29, 2017), a DOC inmate requested copies of negotiable financial instruments deposited by DOC into his inmate trust subaccount. With the assistance of Bank of America (BOA), DOC manages this internal trust accounting system to assist with inmate finances, such as an inmate’s court-imposed financial obligations. DOC scans the front and back of negotiable instruments (e.g., checks or money orders) with BOA’s proprietary software and transmits the digital images to BOA. The digital images are not stored on DOC’s system. DOC then destroys the paper copies of the negotiable instruments after a certain period of time.
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.