School and community college districts are frequently asked to disclose records under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). While many requests can be broad and difficult to respond to, a recent appellate opinion stresses that if litigation forces disclosure of records – even indirectly – the agency may be required to pay the requester’s attorneys’ fees. While the underlying law is not new, the unique facts of this case emphasize the need to respond carefully to requests under the CPRA.
An industry association made several CPRA requests for public records to the Port Agent and San Francisco Bay Board of Pilot Commissioners. The agencies partially responded to the requests, but argued that the Port Agent was not subject to the CPRA. The association sued, and ultimately the Court of Appeal found that the Port Agent was subject to the CPRA, but that the records specifically at issue were not disclosable pursuant to the CPRA. Following that decision, the association made another CPRA request which partially overlapped with the earlier requests, and when the agencies provided records, the industry association claimed entitlement to attorneys’ fees. The trial court awarded fees, and the agencies appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling. (Pacific Merchant Shipping Association v. Board of Pilot Commissioners (Nov. 6, 2015, No. A142634) ___ Cal.App.4th ____ [2015 WL 7777312].) The agencies argued that fees were inappropriate as the records eventually disclosed were not directly at issue in the prior litigation. The Court rejected this argument and instead agreed with the association that a fee award was warranted as the holding in the earlier litigation was the catalyst for the later release of records which were arguably responsive to pre-litigation requests.
While the facts of this case were unique, the decision demonstrates the substantial risk in failing to disclose records in response to a CPRA request. In this case, the court awarded over $250,000 in attorneys’ fees. This potential consequence should inform a district’s approach to CPRA requests. Districts should carefully review their responses to CPRA requests and consider working with counsel where there is potential for a dispute over the request. Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you in responding to a records request under the CPRA.