Changes in Washington Practice (#23) / Public Records Act brings conflict

November 19, 2014

Washington State LawThis is installment #23 in a continuing series of Changes in Washington Practice Reports.

The Public Records Act (PRA) has become a hot topic in Washington State.

More individuals are seeking the disclosure of public records from agencies, while more agencies are struggling to exert control over the handling of such records.

The basic concept is simple: most agency records should be available to the public, at minimal cost and within a reasonable response time.

Exceptions apply in cases where privacy is justified.

The PRA provides the right to such access by citizens, and also provides for penalties if agencies fail to respond as required by statute in a reasonable way.

Most agencies have now named Public Record Officers to handle such requests in keeping with the extensive case law that has developed in this area.

Push-back by agencies has also now resulted in statutory changes—providing courts with a “zero-penalty” option.

As explained in Washington Elements of an Action by DeWolf, volume 29 of Washington Practice (2014-2015 edition, chapter 28), the elements of a pleading for violation of the PRA are assertions that: the “pleading party has followed all statutory criteria” in requesting records and “the agency has failed to produce at least some records responsive to the request”, or “the agency has claimed an exemption that does not apply….”

Extensive cites to the relevant statutes and case law are provided by DeWolf.

Also from volume 29: “A complaint, petition or declaration claiming a violation of the Public Records Act must …allege:

Jurisdictional facts, if applicable.

Facts establishing the proper venue.

Plaintiff properly requested…documents.

Documents were in control of the…agency.

Requests were denied….

Plaintiff was injured….

Plaintiff is entitled to injunctive relief…(and) damages.

Plaintiff is entitled to…attorney fees and costs….”

A sample complaint, sample answer, and sample jury verdict summary are also provided in volume 29.

Third-party organizations may become involved in requests made to agencies, where the third parties have provided information to the agency but do not want the information released to the public.

Thus, attorneys may represent those who make requests, agencies, or third parties.

The PRA spans the boundary between those who prefer to simplify agency operations and minimize disclosure requirements, and those who believe that all agency activities should be public.

A substantial struggle continues to take place over where this boundary is to be drawn.

Whenever attorneys wish to locate specific resource materials, Methods of Practice (volumes 1 to 1C) of Washington Practice can also provide useful assistance. Washington Elements of an Action is summarized in volume 1C, chapter 79 of Methods of Practice. Excerpts from all of the volumes of Washington Practice are presented in an easily-searchable format, so that potential cites may be quickly located. The individual volumes of interest may then be examined for the needed details.