Legal Alerts Dec 29, 2014

School District Case Clarifies PRA Copying Charges

A Government Agency Must Allow the Public to Inspect Records at No Cost, Judge Rules

School District Case Clarifies PRA Copying Charges

A judge has ruled that a California school district’s charging policy for viewing public documents violates the Public Records Act. At issue was Redlands Unified School District’s practice of charging 25 cents a page to copy documents that required redaction before allowing a member of the public to inspect them.

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bryan Foster said members of the public should be allowed to inspect the documents for free, but that, if copying is required, the District overcharged for the duplication. If it is necessary to make copies before producing documents under the PRA, Foster said a public agency can charge only for the costs of direct duplication — not the costs associated with reviewing the request or redacting the documents. Foster ordered the District to reduce its copying fee from 25 cents per copy to 10 cents per copy to comply with state law requirements that government agencies charge only for “direct duplication” costs.

Redlands Unified School District has not filed a notice of appeal within the required 60-day period of Foster’s Sept. 29 order that its public records policies violate state law and must be changed. The case does not set precedent, but was closely watched because of the issues it raised.

The lawsuit began when Maia Pawooskar, the mother of a special education student, filed a public records request seeking billing records for an attorney hired to represent the District in an administrative hearing against Powooskar’s son. The District claimed not to have the records she was looking for, so Powooskar expanded her search, and the District produced 11,180 pages of documents.

The District claimed that, because the records contained personal information, they needed to be redacted before Pawooskar could inspect them, and that redacting the documents would require copies to be made. The District did not allow Pawooskar to inspect the documents to decide which documents she wanted to copy. Instead, the District indicated it would charge 25 cents to copy each page — meaning Pawooskar could have paid $2,795 to view the documents.

State law provides that members of the public can inspect documents at no cost; however, if copies must be made, government agencies can charge only for the direct duplication costs and not the “ancillary” costs associated with retrieving, inspecting and handling the documents.

The District stated that its 25 cent rate was based on the fact that senior staff members process the records, and their salaries are higher than those of the employees who operate the copy machine. Foster ruled that this approach is out of line with state law, and ordered the District to reduce the rate to 10 cents per copy.

If you have questions about this ruling, how it will affect your municipality or agency, or the PRA in general, please contact the attorney author of this legal alert listed at right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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