School districts and community college districts regularly receive public record requests for legal services invoices. While many agencies have taken the position that the invoices are protected from disclosure, there has been little case law on point. On Monday, a California Court of Appeal clarified that invoices sent to public entities by their legal counsel are protected in their entirety by attorney-client privilege and are not subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). (County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors v. Superior Court (April 13, 2015, B257230)___Cal.App.4th____[2015 WL 1612106].)
After several investigations related to treatment of inmates by the Los Angeles County (County) sheriff’s department, the ACLU of Southern California submitted a CPRA request to the County, seeking invoices specifying the amounts the County had been billed for related litigation by law firms. The County objected, claiming attorney-client privilege protected the invoices from disclosure. The trial court disagreed and ordered the County to disclose the invoices, suggesting some portions could be redacted to protect privileged information.
The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision. It held that while the CPRA is broad, “[t]he people’s right to information is not absolute….” Specifically, documents that are protected by the attorney-client privilege are not subject to disclosure under the CPRA. The Court of Appeal acknowledged that a prior case found that redacted invoices did not fall under the CPRA’s exemption for records related to pending litigation, but explained that the parties in that case did not bring the issue of attorney-client privilege before the court. However, in this case that issue was squarely presented for the Court of Appeal’s consideration, and it held that attorney billing statements are covered by the attorney-client privilege. Thus, the CPRA does not require production of any invoices – including redacted invoices – even outside of pending litigation.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeal rejected the ACLU’s argument that potential protection of an attorney-client communication would depend on its content. Instead, where a confidential communication is exchanged between an attorney and his or her client, the entire communication is privileged regardless of content. Thus, attorney invoices would be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Further, the Court of Appeal rejected the ACLU’s policy arguments for disclosure. While the Court of Appeal agreed that the CPRA involves significant public interest, this interest could not justify disclosure of records which were specifically exempted from disclosure under the CPRA. Accordingly, the invoices were not subject to disclosure under the CPRA.
The Court of Appeal’s opinion provides helpful clarity for school districts and community college districts that receive requests for attorney invoices. Under this precedent, the CPRA does not require a local agency to disclose any attorney invoices in response to a CPRA request. While this decision touches on only one exemption from the CPRA, it highlights the need to carefully consider each part of every CPRA request to determine if a school district or community college district must disclose any records. As these requests become more regular and complex, we continue to urge each district to consult with its counsel when it receives a CPRA request.
Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you in the event your district receives a request for public records under the CPRA.