Legal Alerts Apr 16, 2015

Water District Case Clarifies California Public Records Act Exemption for Utility Customers

“Customer” Includes a Business or Corporation, Judge Rules

Water District Case Clarifies California Public Records Act Exemption for Utility Customers

The Public Records Act exempts from required disclosure the identities of commercial, as well as individual, utility customers, according to a recent Riverside County Superior Court decision.

The case, First Amendment Coalition v. Coachella Valley Water District, arose out of CVWD’s denial of a records request for the names, as well as amounts of water usage, for all groundwater customers during the current fiscal year. For several years, CVWD publicly released reports with tables showing, by name, the customers who extracted the most groundwater and diverted the most surface water. The tables consistently showed businesses, including golf courses, as the top water consumers. However, in 2014, CVWD published its report without the table showing the names and usage data of its groundwater customers.

CVWD’s denial of the records request was based on Government Code section 6254.16, which exempts utility customers’ names, addresses and utility usage data from required disclosure under the Act. The plaintiff argued that the purpose of the exemption is to protect the privacy interests of individuals, not commercial entities. However, the trial court agreed with CVWD, stating that the word “customer” in the statute applies to businesses and corporations, as well as individuals.

The case is being closely watched because of the important issues it raises regarding transparency for public utilities during the state’s fourth consecutive year of drought.

The First Amendment Coalition is expected to appeal the decision. Best Best & Krieger represents CVWD in this case.

If you have any questions about this ruling or how it may affect your public agency, please contact the authors of this legal alert listed to the right in the firm’s Municipal Law practice group, or your BB&K attorney. (A paralegal assisted in the writing, planning and research of this article.)

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Disclaimer: BB&K legal alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.

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