Legal Alerts Jan 05, 2016

California Appellate Court: Possession of Documents Requested Under Public Records Act Does Not Render Request Moot

Decision in Case Arising from Wrongful Termination Claims Against a School District

California Appellate Court: Possession of Documents Requested Under Public Records Act Does Not Render Request Moot

When a party is seeking release of documents under the California Public Records Act, a public agency can’t deny the release based on the party’s already having possession of the information, a state appellate court has ruled. In Caldecott v. Superior Court of Orange County, published Dec. 21, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Orange County considered an employee’s lawsuit to obtain records from his former public school district employer under the PRA.

John Caldecott requested documents relating to his complaint for wrongful termination against Newport-Mesa Unified School District. The District denied the request on the grounds it was moot because Caldecott already possessed the documents sought and that the documents sought were not subject to disclosure because they were privileged.

As to mootness, the lower court denied the PRA request on the grounds that Caldecott already possessed the documents. Caldecott argued that a court order was necessary because the school had maintained that the documents were confidential and could not be released. The court agreed with Caldecott and clarified that “[t]he issue is not his current possession of the documents. [Caldecott] seeks the documents so he has the ability to publicly promulgate them without fear of any liability for doing so.” Based on this reasoning, the court concluded that possession of copies is not necessarily a basis to withhold documents, and therefore, the request was not moot. Because the exception for disclosure of personal records contains a balancing test, the court then proceeded to balance the director’s privacy interests in his personnel file against the public’s interest in assessing serious misconduct allegations. It found that in this particular case, the public interest was greater.

As to privilege, the District cited three different privileges: 1.) deliberative process privilege, 2.) official information privilege and 3.) attorney-client privilege. Applying a balancing test, the court dismissed the first two privileges, finding that the interest in disclosure of these records substantially outweighed the privileges. The deliberative process privilege is a limited privilege that protects the mental processes, discussions, and opinions of public officials in reaching a particular conclusion regarding government policy. The official information privilege protects information officials obtain in confidence in the course of performing their duties. The court concluded that any official information contained the documents is subject to disclosure because of the public’s right to know how senior administrators are performing is not confidential. The court left the door open as to the potential applicability of the attorney-client privilege and tasked the lower court with making that determination by returning the case to the Orange County Superior Court.

This case continues the trend favoring access to public records. Because the PRA disregards the motive of a particular requester, it may be used as a litigation tool. Case law already permits the use of the PRA to obtain documents to sidestep discovery requirements and timelines. Once obtained under the PRA, a requester may subsequently publicly disseminate documents with impunity. The decision also demonstrates that the courts will narrowly construe the reasons for denying access.

For more information about this decision and how it may impact your agency, contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed at right in the firm’s Public Policy and Ethics Compliance practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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