Legal Alerts Apr 20, 2018

Private Attorney General Statute to Award Fees Used in a Reverse-PRA Dispute

Part III: Pasadena Police Officers Association v. City of Pasadena

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Reversing a lower court, a California appellate court found that a newspaper could recover attorneys’ fees under the Private Attorney General Statute in a Public Records Act suit. The Second District Court of Appeal decision in Pasadena Police Officers Association v. City of Pasadena applies to the police officers and their union.
 
As discussed in Part I and Part II of this Legal Alert series, the case stems from a fatal officer-involved shooting. The Los Angeles Times requested a copy of the 70-page Report of the incident prepared by an independent consultant. Before the City released a redacted version of the Report, the PPOA filed a reverse-PRA action on behalf of itself and the two officers to stop the release. The Los Angeles Superior Court ordered the redacted Report’s disclosure, and the PPOA and the officers appealed. The Appellate Court held that the City over-redacted the Report and sent the matter back to the Superior Court. The lower court then ordered disclosure of an additional five of the 14 previously redacted pages.
 
On remand, the lower court also considered an L.A. Times motion for attorneys’ fees against the PPOA and the two officers under the Public Records Act and the Private Attorney General Statute. Under the PRA, requesters can recover any fees incurred to enforce their constitutional right to public records. These fees are chargeable to the public entity if the PRA action “prompted” the disclosure of public records.
 
Under the Private Attorney General Statute, private litigants can recover fees as incentives for bringing private lawsuits to enforce public policies that protect an important right or confer a significant public benefit. The Statute includes a multiplier if the public policy violation is severe. The trial court declined to award the L.A. Times any fees against the PPOA and the officers for two reasons: The reverse-PRA action did not arise from the PRA and, second, the PPOA and the officers were only trying to protect the officers’ personal privacy rights and not an important right affecting the public interest. The L.A. Times appealed.
 
The appellate court agreed that the L.A. Times could not recover fees under the PRA, but cited that as the exact reason to apply the Private Attorney General Statute. Additionally, the court found an important public interest at issue because “the officers and the PPOA plainly attempted to restrict the public’s right of access to police records. … In short, this case involves public officials and a public employee union pursuing litigation designed to expand the ability of police officers and a police department to withhold information from the public.” Based on this reasoning, the court held that the L.A. Times could recover attorneys’ fees against the PPOA and the officers, in their personal capacities under the Private Attorney General Statute.
 
This aspect of the appellate decision could discourage the filing of reverse-PRA actions. Plaintiffs in reverse-PRA cases will have to consider whether they may be held liable for the PRA requester’s attorney’s fees under the Private Attorney General Statute if the reverse-PRA action fails.
 
Previously in this Series:
Part I: PRA Fee Award Narrowed to Cover the Issue of Scope of Redactions
Part II: An Appellate Court’s Observation May Have Effect on Reverse-PRA
 
If you have any questions about this opinion or how it may impact your agency, please contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed to the right in the firm’s Government Policy & Public Integrity practice group, or your BB&K attorney.
 
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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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