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(1) Seeking judicial review.
The act provides that an agency's decision to deny a request is final for purposes of judicial review two business days after the initial denial of the request. RCW 42.17.320
Therefore, the statute allows a requestor to seek judicial review two business days after the initial denial whether or not he or she has exhausted the internal agency review process.2
An agency should not have an internal review process that implies that a requestor cannot seek judicial review until internal reviews are complete because RCW 42.17.320
/42.56.520 allows judicial review two business days after the initial denial.
The act provides a speedy remedy for a requestor to obtain a court hearing on whether the agency has violated the act. RCW 42.17.340
(1) and (2)/42.56.550 (1) and (2). The purpose of the quick judicial procedure is to allow requestors to expeditiously find out if they are entitled to obtain public records.3
To speed up the court process, a public records case may be decided merely on the "motion" of a requestor and "solely on affidavits." RCW 42.17.340
(1) and (3)/42.56.550 (1) and (3).
(2) Statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations for an action under the act is one year after the agency's claim of exemption or the last production of a record on a partial or installment basis. RCW 42.17.340
To initiate court review of a public records case, a requestor can file a "motion to show cause" which directs the agency to appear before the court and show any cause why the agency did not violate the act. RCW 42.17.340
(1) and (2)/42.56.550 (1) and (2).4
The case must be filed in the superior court in the county in which the record is maintained. RCW 42.17.340
(1) and (2)/42.56.550 (1) and (2). In a case against a county, the case may be filed in the superior court of that county, or in the superior court of either of the two nearest adjoining counties. RCW 42.17.340
(5)/42.56.550(5). The show-cause procedure is designed so that a nonattorney requestor can obtain judicial review himself or herself without hiring an attorney. A requestor can file a motion for summary judgment to adjudicate the case.5
However, most cases are decided on a motion to show cause.6
(4) Burden of proof.
The burden is on an agency to demonstrate that it complied with the act. RCW 42.17.340
(1) and (2)/42.56.550 (1) and (2).
(5) Types of cases subject to judicial review. The act provides three mechanisms for court review of a public records dispute.
(a) Denial of record.
The first kind of judicial review is when a requestor's request has been denied by an agency. RCW 42.17.340
(1)/42.56.550(1). This is the most common kind of case.
(b) "Reasonable estimate."
The second form of judicial review is when a requestor challenges an agency's "reasonable estimate" of the time to provide a full response. RCW 42.17.340
(c) Injunctive action to prevent disclosure.
The third mechanism of judicial review is an injunctive action to restrain the disclosure of public records. RCW 42.17.330
/42.56.540. An action under this statute can be initiated by the agency, a person named in the disputed record, or a person to whom the record "specifically pertains." The party seeking to prevent disclosure has the burden of proving the record is exempt from disclosure.7
The party seeking to prevent disclosure must prove both the necessary elements of an injunction and that a specific exemption prevents disclosure.8
(6) "In camera" review by court.
The act authorizes a court to review withheld records or portions of records "in camera." RCW 42.17.340
(3)/42.56.550(3). "In camera" means a confidential review by the judge alone in his or her chambers. Courts are encouraged to conduct an in camera review because it is often the only way to determine if an exemption has been properly claimed.9
An agency should prepare an in camera index of each withheld record or portion of a record to assist the judge's in camera review. This is a second index, in addition to a withholding index provided to the requestor. The in camera index should number each withheld record or redacted portion of the record, provide the unredacted record or portion to the judge with a reference to the index number, and provide a brief explanation of each claimed exemption corresponding to the numbering system. The agency's brief explanation should not be as detailed as a legal brief because the opposing party will not have an opportunity to review it and respond. The agency's legal briefing should be done in the normal course of pleadings, with the opposing party having an opportunity to respond.
The in camera index and disputed records or unredacted portions of records should be filed under seal. The judge should explain his or her ruling on each withheld record or redacted portion by referring to the numbering system in the in camera index. If the trial court's decision is appealed, the in camera index and its attachments should be made part of the record on appeal and filed under seal in the appellate court.
(7) Attorneys' fees, costs, and penalties to prevailing requestor.
The act requires an agency to pay a prevailing requestor's reasonable attorneys' fees, costs, and a daily penalty. RCW 42.17.340
(4)/42.56.550(4). Only a requestor can be awarded attorneys' fees, costs, or a daily penalty under the act; an agency or a third party resisting disclosure cannot.10
A requestor is the "prevailing" party when he or she obtains a judgment in his or her favor, the suit was reasonably necessary to obtain the record, or a wrongfully withheld record was provided for another reason.11
In an injunctive action under RCW 42.17.330
/42.56.540, the prevailing requestor cannot be awarded attorneys' fees, costs, or a daily penalty against an agency if the agency took the position that the record was subject to disclosure.12
The purpose of the act's attorneys' fees, costs, and daily penalty provisions is to reimburse the requestor for vindicating the public's right to obtain public records, to make it financially feasible for requestors to do so, and to deter agencies from improperly withholding records.13
However, a court is only authorized to award "reasonable" attorneys' fees. RCW 42.17.340
(4)/42.56.550(4). A court has discretion to award attorneys' fees based on an assessment of reasonable hourly rates and which work was necessary to obtain the favorable result.14
The award of "costs" under the act is for all of a requestor's nonattorney-fee costs and is broader than the court costs awarded to prevailing parties in other kinds of cases.15
A daily penalty of between five dollars to one hundred dollars must be awarded to a prevailing requestor, regardless of an agency's "good faith."16 An agency's "bad faith" can warrant a penalty on the higher end of this scale.17 The penalty is per day, not per-record per-day.18
1Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y v. Univ. of Wash
., 125 Wn.2d 243, 253, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) ("PAWS II
") (RCW 42.17.320
/42.56.520 "provides that, regardless of internal review, initial decisions become final for purposes of judicial review after two business days.").
, WAC 44-06-120
(attorney general's office internal review procedure specifying that review is final when the agency renders a decision on the appeal, or the close of the second business day after it receives the appeal, "whichever occurs first").
3Spokane Research & Def. Fund v. City of Spokane, 121 Wn. App. 584, 591, 89 P.3d 319 (2004), reversed on other grounds, 155 Wn.2d 89, 117 P.3d 1117 (2005) ("The purpose of the PDA is to ensure speedy disclosure of public records. The statute sets forth a simple procedure to achieve this.").
4See generally Spokane Research & Def. Fund v. City of Spokane, 155 Wn.2d 89, 117 P.3d 1117 (2005).
5Id. at 106.
6Wood v. Thurston County, 117 Wn. App. 22, 27, 68 P.3d 1084 (2003).
7Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation v. Johnson, 135 Wn.2d 735, 744, 958 P.2d 260 (1998).
8PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 257-58.
9Spokane Research & Def. Fund v. City of Spokane, 96 Wn. App. 568, 577 & 588, 983 P.2d 676 (1999), review denied, 140 Wn.2d 1001, 999 P.2d 1259 (2000).
(4)/42.56.550(4) (providing award only for "person" prevailing against "agency"); Tiberino v. Spokane County Prosecutor
, 103 Wn. App. 680, 691-92, 13 P.3d 1104 (2000) (third party resisting disclosure not entitled to award).
11Violante v. King County Fire Dist. No. 20, 114 Wn. App. 565, 571, 59 P.3d 109 (2002); Spokane Research & Def. Fund v. City of Spokane, 155 Wn.2d 89, 104, 117 P.3d 1117 (2005).
12Confederated Tribes, 135 Wn.2d at 757.
13Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Blaine Sch. Dist. No. 503, 95 Wn. App. 106, 115, 975 P.2d 536 (1999) ("ACLU II") ("permitting a liberal recovery of costs is consistent with the policy behind the act by making it financially feasible for private citizens to enforce the public's right to access to public records.").
14Id. at 118.
15Id. at 115.
16American Civil Liberties Union v. Blaine School Dist. No. 503, 86 Wn. App. 688, 698-99, 937 P.2d 1176 (1997) ("ACLU I").
18Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, 152 Wn.2d 421, 436, 98 P.3d 463 (2004).
[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348
. WSR 06-04-079, § 44-14-08004, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]