Obligations of requestors.
(1) Reasonable notice that request is for public records. A requestor must give an agency reasonable notice that the request is being made pursuant to the act. Requestors are encouraged to cite or name the act but are not required to do so.1 A request using the terms "public records," "public disclosure," "FOIA," or "Freedom of Information Act" (the terms commonly used for federal records requests) should provide an agency with reasonable notice in most cases. A requestor should not submit a "stealth" request, which is buried in another document in an attempt to trick the agency into not responding.
(2) Identifiable record.
A requestor must request an "identifiable record" or "class of records" before an agency must respond to it. RCW 42.17.270
/42.56.080 and 42.17.340(1)/42.56.550(1). An "identifiable record" is one that agency staff can reasonably locate.2
The act does not allow a requestor to search through agency files for records which cannot be reasonably identified or described to the agency.3
However, a requestor is not required to identify the exact record he or she seeks. For example, if a requestor requested an agency's "2001 budget," but the agency only had a 2000-2002 budget, the requestor made a request for an identifiable record.4
An "identifiable record" is not a request for "information" in general.5 For example, asking "what policies" an agency has for handling discrimination complaints is merely a request for "information."6 A request to inspect or copy an agency's policies and procedures for handling discrimination complaints would be a request for an "identifiable record."
Public records requests are not interrogatories. An agency is not required to conduct legal research for a requestor.7 A request for "any law that allows the county to impose taxes on me" is not a request for an identifiable record. Conversely, a request for "all records discussing the passage of this year's tax increase on real property" is a request for an "identifiable record."
When a request uses an inexact phrase such as all records "relating to" a topic (such as "all records relating to the property tax increase"), the agency may interpret the request to be for records which directly and fairly address the topic. When an agency receives a "relating to" or similar request, it should seek clarification of the request from the requestor.
(3) "Overbroad" requests.
An agency cannot "deny a request for identifiable public records based solely on the basis that the request is overbroad." RCW 42.17.270
/42.56.080. However, if such a request is not for identifiable records or otherwise is not proper, the request can still be denied. When confronted with a request that is unclear, an agency should seek clarification.
1Wood v. Lowe, 102 Wn. App. 872, 10 P.3d 494 (2000).
2Bonamy v. City of Seattle, 92 Wn. App. 403, 410, 960 P.2d 447 (1998), review denied, 137 Wn.2d 1012, 978 P.2d 1099 (1999) ("identifiable record" requirement is satisfied when there is a "reasonable description" of the record "enabling the government employee to locate the requested records.").
3Limstrom v. Ladenburg, 136 Wn.2d 595, 604, n.3, 963 P.2d 869 (1998), appeal after remand, 110 Wn. App. 133, 39 P.3d 351 (2002).
4Violante v. King County Fire Dist. No. 20, 114 Wn. App. 565, 571, n.4, 59 P.3d 109 (2002).
5Bonamy, 92 Wn. App. at 409.
7See Limstrom, 136 Wn.2d at 604, n.3 (act does not require "an agency to go outside its own records and resources to try to identify or locate the record requested."); Bonamy, 92 Wn. App. at 409 (act "does not require agencies to research or explain public records, but only to make those records accessible to the public.").
[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348
. WSR 06-04-079, § 44-14-04002, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]