Effective Date of Rule: Thirty-one days after filing.
Purpose: The purpose of the model rules is to provide information to records requestors and state and local agencies about "best practices" for complying with the Public Records Act, RCW 42.17.250-[42.17].348. The anticipated effect of the model rules is to streamline compliance, standardize best practices throughout the state, and reduce litigation by establishing a culture of compliance among agencies and a culture of cooperation among requestors.
Statutory Authority for Adoption: Section 4, chapter 483, Laws of 2005, amending RCW 42.17.348.
Adopted under notice filed as WSR 05-23-166 on November 23, 2005.
Changes Other than Editing from Proposed to Adopted Version: As more fully described in the concise explanatory statement, the following nonediting changes were made:
|Section of Final Rule||Change from Proposed Rule|
|WAC 44-14-00004||Adding dual citations to current statute and recodified statute (effective July 1, 2006) throughout the model rules.|
|WAC 44-14-040(3)||Revises provision to urge requestors to contact agency if there is no response after five days.|
|WAC 44-14-04003(2)||Clarifies how the "fullest assistance" and "most timely possible action" principles of the act apply to the processing of requests.|
|WAC 44-14-04003(10) (as renumbered)||Clarifies that instead of agency needing to "obtain" additional time to fulfill a request, an "unjustified" failure of the agency to provide records within its reasonable estimate is a denial of access.|
|WAC 44-14-04003 (4) and (12)||Moves part of section on failure to provide an initial response from the rule to the comments and adds citation to case.|
|WAC 44-14-04003(5)||Adds that if an agency creates a new record it should obtain the consent of the requestor to ensure that the requestor was not requesting the underlying documents instead of the agency-created new document.|
|WAC 44-14-04003(9)||Clarifies that an agency need not "obtain" additional time from the requestor to fully respond and adds that an "unjustified" failure to fully respond by the expiration of a reasonable estimate is a denial of access to the record.|
|WAC 44-14-04004(1)||Eliminates statement implying that even when a record is immediately available, an agency may take the full five business days to provide it.|
|WAC 44-14-04004(2)||Adds that an agency must mail a copy of requested records when the requestor pays for the copies and the cost of mailing.|
|WAC 44-14-04004 (4)(b)(i)||Changes the example of redacting only exempt portions of a record from an attorney-client memorandum to victim identities in a police report.|
|WAC 44-14-04006(1)||Adds that a closing letter for a small request may not be necessary.|
|WAC 44-14-050||Eliminates electronic records section (and related sections in costs section); this topic will be the subject of further rule making.|
Number of Sections Adopted in Order to Comply with Federal Statute: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0; Federal Rules or Standards: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0; or Recently Enacted State Statutes: New 42, Amended 0, Repealed 0.
Number of Sections Adopted at Request of a Nongovernmental Entity: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0.
Number of Sections Adopted on the Agency's Own Initiative: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0.
Number of Sections Adopted in Order to Clarify, Streamline, or Reform Agency Procedures: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0.
Number of Sections Adopted Using Negotiated Rule Making: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0; Pilot Rule Making: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0; or Other Alternative Rule Making: New 0, Amended 0, Repealed 0.
Date Adopted: January 31, 2006.
PUBLIC RECORDS ACT -- MODEL RULES
The act applies to all state agencies and local units of government. The model rules use the term "agency" to refer to either a state or local agency. Upon adoption, each agency would change that term to name itself (such as changing references from "name of agency" to "city"). To assist state and local agencies considering adopting the model rules, an electronic version of the rules is available on the attorney general's web site, www.atg.wa.gov/records/modelrules.
The model rules are the product of an extensive outreach project. The attorney general held thirteen public forums all across the state to obtain the views of requestors and agencies. Many requestors and agencies also provided detailed written comments that are contained in the rule-making file. The model rules reflect many of the points and concerns presented in those forums.
The model rules provide one approach (or, in some cases, alternate approaches) to processing public records requests. Agencies vary enormously in size, resources, and complexity of requests received. Any "one-size-fits-all" approach in the model rules, therefore, may not be best for requestors and agencies.
The comments are designed to explain the basis and rationale for the rules themselves as well as provide broader context and legal guidance. To do so, the comments contain many citations to statutes, cases, and formal attorney general's opinions.
While the model rules and comments are nonbinding, they should be carefully considered by requestors and agencies. The model rules and comments were adopted after extensive statewide hearings and voluminous comments from a wide variety of interested parties.
The Washington State Bar Association is publishing a twenty-two-chapter deskbook on public records in 2006. It will be available for purchase at www.wsba.org.
AUTHORITY AND PURPOSE
(2) The purpose of these rules is to establish the procedures (name of agency) will follow in order to provide full access to public records. These rules provide information to persons wishing to request access to public records of the (name of agency) and establish processes for both requestors and (name of agency) staff that are designed to best assist members of the public in obtaining such access.
(3) The purpose of the act is to provide the public full access to information concerning the conduct of government, mindful of individuals' privacy rights and the desirability of the efficient administration of government. The act and these rules will be interpreted in favor of disclosure. In carrying out its responsibilities under the act, the (name of agency) will be guided by the provisions of the act describing its purposes and interpretation.
Comments to WAC 44-14-010
Court files and judges' files are not subject to the act.1 Access to these records is governed by court rules and common law. The model rules, therefore, do not address access to court records.
An entity which is not an "agency" can still be subject to the act when it is the functional equivalent of an agency. Courts have applied a four-factor, case-by-case test. The factors are:
(1) Whether the entity performs a government function;
(2) The level of government funding;
(3) The extent of government involvement or regulation; and
(4) Whether the entity was created by the government. Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (2002).2
Some agencies, most notably counties, are a collection of separate quasi-autonomous departments which are governed by different elected officials (such as a county assessor and prosecuting attorney). However, the act defines the county as a whole as an "agency" subject to the act. RCW 42.17.020(2). An agency should coordinate responses to records requests across departmental lines. RCW 42.17.253(1) (agency's public records officer must "oversee the agency's compliance" with act).
|Notes:||1 Nast v. Michels, 107 Wn.2d 300, 730 P.2d 54 (1986).|
|2 See also Telford v. Thurston County Bd. of Comm'rs, 95 Wn. App. 149, 162, 974 P.2d 886, review denied, 138 Wn.2d 1015, 989 P.2d 1143 (1999); Op. Att'y Gen. 5 (1991).|
At the same time, an agency's regulations must "protect public records from damage or disorganization" and "prevent excessive interference" with other essential agency functions. Another provision of the act states that providing public records should not "unreasonably disrupt the operations of the agency." RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. This provision allows an agency to take reasonable precautions to prevent a requestor from being unreasonably disruptive or disrespectful to agency staff.
Because the purpose of the act is to allow people to be informed about governmental decisions (and therefore help keep government accountable) while at the same time being "mindful of the right of individuals to privacy," it should not be used to obtain records containing purely personal information that has absolutely no bearing on the conduct of government.
The act emphasizes three separate times that it must be liberally construed to effect its purpose, which is the disclosure of nonexempt public records. RCW 42.17.010, 42.17.251/42.56.030, 42.17.920.1 The act places the burden on the agency of proving a record is not subject to disclosure or that its estimate of time to provide a full response is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340 (1) and (2)/42.56.550 (1) and (2). The act also encourages disclosure by awarding a requestor reasonable attorneys fees, costs, and a daily penalty if the agency fails to meet its burden of proving the record is not subject to disclosure or its estimate is not "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(4)/42.56.550(4).
An additional incentive for disclosure is RCW 42.17.258, which provides: "No public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian shall be liable, nor shall a cause of action exist, for any loss or damage based upon the release of a public record if the public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian acted in good faith in attempting to comply" with the act.
|Note:||1See King County v. Sheehan, 114 Wn. App. 325, 338, 57 P.3d 307 (2002) (referring to the three legislative intent provisions of the act as "the thrice-repeated legislative mandate that exemptions under the Public Records Act are to be narrowly construed.").|
AGENCY DESCRIPTION -- CONTACT INFORMATION -- PUBLIC RECORDS OFFICER
(2) Any person wishing to request access to public records of (agency), or seeking assistance in making such a request should contact the public records officer of the (name of agency):
Public Records Officer
Information is also available at the (name of agency's) web site at (web site address).
(3) The public records officer will oversee compliance with the act but another (name of agency) staff member may process the request. Therefore, these rules will refer to the public records officer "or designee." The public records officer or designee and the (name of agency) will provide the "fullest assistance" to requestors; create and maintain for use by the public and (name of agency) officials an index to public records of the (name of agency, if applicable); ensure that public records are protected from damage or disorganization; and prevent fulfilling public records requests from causing excessive interference with essential functions of the (name of agency).
Comments to WAC 44-14-020
|Note:||1See, e.g., WAC 44-06-030 (attorney general office's organizational and public records methods statement).|
The public records officer is not required to personally fulfill requests for public records. A request can be fulfilled by an agency employee other than the public records officer. If the request is made to the public records officer, but should actually be fulfilled by others in the agency, the public records officer should route the request to the appropriate person or persons in the agency for processing. An agency is not required to hire a new staff member to be the public records officer.
AVAILABILITY OF PUBLIC RECORDS
(2) Records index. (If agency keeps an index.) An index of public records is available for use by members of the public, including (describe contents). The index may be accessed on-line at (web site address). (If there are multiple indices, describe each and its availability.)
(If agency is local agency opting out of the index requirement.) The (name of agency) finds that maintaining an index is unduly burdensome and would interfere with agency operations. The requirement would unduly burden or interfere with (name of agency) operations in the following ways (specify reasons).
(3) Organization of records. The (name of agency) will maintain its records in a reasonably organized manner. The (name of agency) will take reasonable actions to protect records from damage and disorganization. A requestor shall not take (name of agency) records from (name of agency) offices without the permission of the public records officer or designee. A variety of records is available on the (name of agency) web site at (web site address). Requestors are encouraged to view the documents available on the web site prior to submitting a records request.
(4) Making a request for public records.
(a) Any person wishing to inspect or copy public records of the (name of agency) should make the request in writing on the (name of agency's) request form, or by letter, fax, or e-mail addressed to the public records officer and including the following information:
• Name of requestor;
• Address of requestor;
• Other contact information, including telephone number and any e-mail address;
• Identification of the public records adequate for the public records officer or designee to locate the records; and
• The date and time of day of the request.
(b) If the requestor wishes to have copies of the records made instead of simply inspecting them, he or she should so indicate and make arrangements to pay for copies of the records or a deposit. Pursuant to section (insert section), standard photocopies will be provided at (amount) cents per page.
(c) A form is available for use by requestors at the office of the public records officer and on-line at (web site address).
(d) The public records officer or designee may accept requests for public records that contain the above information by telephone or in person. If the public records officer or designee accepts such a request, he or she will confirm receipt of the information and the substance of the request in writing.
Comments to WAC 44-14-030
(1) Writing. A "public record" can be any writing "regardless of physical form or characteristics." RCW 42.17.020(41). "Writing" is defined very broadly as: "...handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, and every other means of recording any form of communication or representation, including, but not limited to, letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combination thereof, and all papers, maps, magnetic or paper tapes, photographic films and prints, motion picture, film and video recordings, magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, diskettes, sound recordings, and other documents including existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated." RCW 42.17.020(48). An e-mail is a "writing."
(2) Relating to the conduct of government. To be a "public record," a document must relate to the "conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function." RCW 42.17.020(41). Almost all records held by an agency relate to the conduct of government; however, some do not. A purely personal record having absolutely no relation to the conduct of government is not a "public record." Even though a purely personal record might not be a "public record," a record of its existence might be. For example, a record showing the existence of a purely personal e-mail sent by an agency employee on an agency computer would probably be a "public record," even if the contents of the e-mail itself were not.2
(3) "Prepared, owned, used, or retained." A "public record" is a record "prepared, owned, used, or retained" by an agency. RCW 42.17.020(41).
A record can be "used" by an agency even if the agency does not actually possess the record. If an agency uses a record in its decision-making process it is a "public record."3 For example, if an agency considered technical specifications of a public works project and returned the specifications to the contractor in another state, the specifications would be a "public record" because the agency "used" the document in its decision-making process.4 The agency could be required to obtain the public record, unless doing so would be impossible. An agency cannot send its only copy of a record to a third party for the sole purpose of avoiding disclosure.5
Sometimes agency employees work on agency business from home computers. These home computer records (including e-mail) were "used" by the agency and relate to the "conduct of government" so they are "public records." RCW 42.17.020(41). However, the act does not authorize unbridled searches of agency property.6 If agency property is not subject to unbridled searches, then neither is the home computer of an agency employee. Yet, because the home computer documents relating to agency business are "public records," they are subject to disclosure (unless exempt). Agencies should instruct employees that all public records, regardless of where they were created, should eventually be stored on agency computers. Agencies should ask employees to keep agency-related documents on home computers in separate folders and to routinely blind carbon copy ("bcc") work e-mails back to the employee's agency e-mail account. If the agency receives a request for records that are solely on employees' home computers, the agency should direct the employee to forward any responsive documents back to the agency, and the agency should process the request as it would if the records were on the agency's computers.
|Notes:||1Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation v. Johnson, 135 Wn.2d 734, 748, 958 P.2d 260 (1998). For records held by the secretary of the senate or chief clerk of the house of representatives, a "public record" is a "legislative record" as defined in RCW 40.14.100. RCW 42.17.020(41).|
|2Tiberino v. Spokane County Prosecutor, 103 Wn. App. 680, 691, 13 P.3d 1104 (2000).|
|3 Concerned Ratepayers v. Public Utility Dist. No. 1, 138 Wn.2d 950, 958-61, 983 P.2d 635 (1999).|
|5 See Op. Att'y Gen. 11 (1989), at 4, n.2 ("We do not wish to encourage agencies to avoid the provisions of the public disclosure act by transferring public records to private parties. If a record otherwise meeting the statutory definition were transferred into private hands solely to prevent its public disclosure, we expect courts would take appropriate steps to require the agency to make disclosure or to sanction the responsible public officers.")|
|6 See Hangartner v. City of Seattle, 151 Wn.2d 439, 448, 90 P.3d 26 (2004).|
The index requirements differ for state and local agencies.
A state agency must index only two categories of records:
(1) All records, if any, issued before July 1, 1990 for which the agency has maintained an index; and
(2) Final orders, declaratory orders, interpretive statements, and statements of policy issued after June 30, 1990. RCW 42.17.260(5)/42.56.070(5).
A state agency must adopt a rule governing its index.
A local agency may opt out of the indexing requirement if it issues a formal order specifying the reasons why doing so would "unduly burden or interfere with agency operations." RCW 42.17.260 (4)(a)/42.56.070 (4)(a). To lawfully opt out of the index requirement, a local agency must actually issue an order or adopt an ordinance specifying the reasons it cannot maintain an index.
The index requirements of the act were enacted in 1972 when agencies had far fewer records and an index was easier to maintain. However, technology allows agencies to map out, archive, and then electronically search for electronic documents. Agency resources vary greatly so not every agency can afford to utilize this technology. However, agencies should explore the feasibility of electronic indexing and retrieval to assist both the agency and requestor in locating public records.
The legislature encourages agencies to electronically store and provide public records:RCW 43.105.250. An agency could fulfill its obligation to provide "access" to a public record by providing a requestor with a link to an agency web site containing an electronic copy of that record. Agencies are encouraged to do so. For those without access to the internet, an agency could provide a computer terminal at its office.
Retention schedules vary based on the content of the record. For example, documents with no value such as internal meeting scheduling e-mails can be destroyed when no longer needed, but documents such as periodic accounting reports must be kept for a period of years. Because different kinds of records must be retained for different periods of time, an agency is prohibited from automatically deleting all e-mails after a short period of time (such as thirty days). While many of the e-mails could be destroyed when no longer needed, many others must be retained for several years. Indiscriminate automatic deletion of all e-mails after a short period may prevent an agency from complying with its retention duties and could complicate performance of its duties under the Public Records Act. An agency should have a retention policy in which employees save retainable documents and delete nonretainable ones. An agency is strongly encouraged to train employees on retention schedules.
The lawful destruction of public records is governed by retention schedules. The unlawful destruction of public records can be a crime. RCW 40.16.010 and 40.16.020.
An agency is prohibited from destroying a public record, even if it is about to be lawfully destroyed under a retention schedule, if a public records request has been made for that record. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. Additional retention requirements might apply if the records may be relevant to actual or anticipated litigation. The agency is required to retain the record until the record request has been resolved. An exception exists for certain portions of a state employee's personnel file. RCW 42.17.295/42.56.110.
|Note:||1An agency can be found to violate the act and be subject to the attorneys' fees and penalty provision if it prematurely destroys a requested record. See Yacobellis v. City of Bellingham, 55 Wn. App. 706, 780 P.2d 272 (1989).|
A number of agencies routinely accept oral public records requests (for example, asking to look at a building permit). Some agencies find oral requests to be the best way to provide certain kinds of records. However, for some requests such as larger ones, oral requests may be allowed but are problematic. An oral request does not memorialize the exact records sought and therefore prevents a requestor or agency from later proving what was included in the request. Furthermore, as described in WAC 44-14-04002(1), a requestor must provide the agency with reasonable notice that the request is for the disclosure of public records; oral requests, especially to agency staff other than the public records officer or designee, may not provide the agency with the required reasonable notice. Therefore, requestors are strongly encouraged to make written requests. If an agency receives an oral request, the agency staff person receiving it should immediately reduce it to writing and then verify in writing with the requestor that it correctly memorializes the request.
An agency should have a public records request form. An agency request form should ask the requestor whether he or she seeks to inspect the records, receive a copy of them, or to inspect the records first and then consider selecting records to copy. An agency request form should recite that inspection of records is free and provide the per-page charge for standard photocopies.
An agency request form should require the requestor to provide contact information so the agency can communicate with the requestor to, for example, clarify the request, inform the requestor that the records are available, or provide an explanation of an exemption. Contact information such as a name, phone number, and address or e-mail should be provided. Requestors should provide an e-mail address because it is an efficient means of communication and creates a written record of the communications between them and the agency. An agency should not require a requestor to provide a driver's license number, date of birth, or photo identification. This information is not necessary for the agency to contact the requestor and requiring it might intimidate some requestors.
An agency may ask a requestor to prioritize the records he or she is requesting so that the agency is able to provide the most important records first. An agency is not required to ask for prioritization, and a requestor is not required to provide it.
An agency cannot require the requestor to disclose the purpose of the request with two exceptions. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. First, if the request is for a list of individuals, an agency may ask the requestor if he or she intends to use the records for a commercial purpose.2 An agency should specify on its request form that the agency is not authorized to provide public records consisting of a list of individuals for a commercial use. RCW 42.17.260(9)/42.56.070(9).
Second, an agency may seek information sufficient to allow it to determine if another statute prohibits disclosure. For example, some statutes allow an agency to disclose a record only to a claimant for benefits or his or her representative. In such cases, an agency is authorized to ask the requestor if he or she fits this criterion.
An agency is not authorized to require a requestor to indemnify the agency. Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988).3
|Notes:||1Hangartner v. City of Seattle, 151 Wn.2d 439, 447, 90 P.3d 26 (2004) ("there is no official format for a valid PDA request.").|
|2Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988), at 11; Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (1998), at 4.|
|3RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060 provides: "No public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian shall be liable, nor shall a cause of action exist, for any loss or damage based upon the release of a public record if the public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian acted in good faith in attempting to comply with the provisions of this chapter." Therefore, an agency has little need for an indemnification clause. Requiring a requestor to indemnify an agency inhibits some requestors from exercising their right to request public records. Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988), at 11.|
PROCESSING OF PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS -- GENERAL
(2) Acknowledging receipt of request. Within five business days of receipt of the request, the public records officer will do one or more of the following:
(a) Make the records available for inspection or copying;
(b) If copies are requested and payment of a deposit for the copies, if any, is made or terms of payment are agreed upon, send the copies to the requestor;
(c) Provide a reasonable estimate of when records will be available; or
(d) If the request is unclear or does not sufficiently identify the requested records, request clarification from the requestor. Such clarification may be requested and provided by telephone. The public records officer or designee may revise the estimate of when records will be available; or
(e) Deny the request.
(3) Consequences of failure to respond. If the (name of agency) does not respond in writing within five business days of receipt of the request for disclosure, the requestor should consider contacting the public records officer to determine the reason for the failure to respond.
(4) Protecting rights of others. In the event that the requested records contain information that may affect rights of others and may be exempt from disclosure, the public records officer may, prior to providing the records, give notice to such others whose rights may be affected by the disclosure. Such notice should be given so as to make it possible for those other persons to contact the requestor and ask him or her to revise the request, or, if necessary, seek an order from a court to prevent or limit the disclosure. The notice to the affected persons will include a copy of the request.
(5) Records exempt from disclosure. Some records are exempt from disclosure, in whole or in part. If the (name of agency) believes that a record is exempt from disclosure and should be withheld, the public records officer will state the specific exemption and provide a brief explanation of why the record or a portion of the record is being withheld. If only a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure, but the remainder is not exempt, the public records officer will redact the exempt portions, provide the nonexempt portions, and indicate to the requestor why portions of the record are being redacted.
(6) Inspection of records.
(a) Consistent with other demands, the (name of agency) shall promptly provide space to inspect public records. No member of the public may remove a document from the viewing area or disassemble or alter any document. The requestor shall indicate which documents he or she wishes the agency to copy.
(b) The requestor must claim or review the assembled records within thirty days of the (name of agency's) notification to him or her that the records are available for inspection or copying. The agency will notify the requestor in writing of this requirement and inform the requestor that he or she should contact the agency to make arrangements to claim or review the records. If the requestor or a representative of the requestor fails to claim or review the records within the thirty-day period or make other arrangements, the (name of agency) may close the request and refile the assembled records. Other public records requests can be processed ahead of a subsequent request by the same person for the same or almost identical records, which can be processed as a new request.
(7) Providing copies of records. After inspection is complete, the public records officer or designee shall make the requested copies or arrange for copying.
(8) Providing records in installments. When the request is for a large number of records, the public records officer or designee will provide access for inspection and copying in installments, if he or she reasonably determines that it would be practical to provide the records in that way. If, within thirty days, the requestor fails to inspect the entire set of records or one or more of the installments, the public records officer or designee may stop searching for the remaining records and close the request.
(9) Completion of inspection. When the inspection of the requested records is complete and all requested copies are provided, the public records officer or designee will indicate that the (name of agency) has completed a diligent search for the requested records and made any located nonexempt records available for inspection.
(10) Closing withdrawn or abandoned request. When the requestor either withdraws the request or fails to fulfill his or her obligations to inspect the records or pay the deposit or final payment for the requested copies, the public records officer will close the request and indicate to the requestor that the (name of agency) has closed the request.
(11) Later discovered documents. If, after the (name of agency) has informed the requestor that it has provided all available records, the (name of agency) becomes aware of additional responsive documents existing at the time of the request, it will promptly inform the requestor of the additional documents and provide them on an expedited basis.
Comments on WAC 44-14-040
Requestors should keep in mind that all agencies have essential functions in addition to providing public records. Agencies also have greatly differing resources. The act recognizes that agency public records procedures should prevent "excessive interference" with the other "essential functions" of the agency. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. Therefore, while providing public records is an essential function of an agency, it is not required to abandon its other, nonpublic records functions. Agencies without a full-time public records officer may assign staff part-time to fulfill records requests, provided the agency is providing the "fullest assistance" and the "most timely possible" action on the request. The proper level of staffing for public records requests will vary among agencies, considering the complexity and number of requests to that agency, agency resources, and the agency's other functions.
The burden of proof is on an agency to prove its estimate of time to provide a full response is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2). An agency should be prepared to explain how it arrived at its estimate of time and why the estimate is reasonable.
Agencies are encouraged to use technology to provide public records more quickly and, if possible, less expensively. An agency is allowed, of course, to do more for the requestor than is required by the letter of the act. Doing so often saves the agency time and money in the long run, improves relations with the public, and prevents litigation. For example, agencies are encouraged to post many nonexempt records of broad public interest on the internet. This may result in fewer requests for public records. See RCW 43.105.270 (state agencies encouraged to post frequently sought documents on the internet).
|Notes:||1 RCW 42.17.260(1)/42.56.070(1) (agency "shall make available for public inspection and copying all public records, unless the record falls within the specific exemptions" listed in the act or other statute).|
|2 See RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080 ("identifiable record" requirement); RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120 (claim or review requirement); RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100 (agency may prevent excessive interference with other essential agency functions).|
(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.
|Notes:||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.").|
An agency cannot require a requestor to state the purpose of the request (with limited exceptions). RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. However, in an effort to better understand the request and provide all responsive records, the agency can inquire about the purpose of the request. The requestor is not required to answer the agency's inquiry (with limited exceptions as previously noted).
(2) Provide "fullest assistance" and "most timely possible action." The act requires agencies to adopt and enforce reasonable rules to provide for the "fullest assistance" to a requestor. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The "fullest assistance" principle should guide agencies when processing requests. In general, an agency should devote sufficient staff time to processing records requests, consistent with the act's requirement that fulfilling requests should not be an "excessive interference" with the agency's "other essential functions." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The agency should recognize that fulfilling public records requests is one of the agency's duties, along with its others.
The act also requires agencies to adopt and enforce rules to provide for the "most timely possible action on requests." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. This principle should guide agencies when processing requests. It should be noted that this provision requires the most timely "possible" action on requests. This recognizes that an agency is not always capable of fulfilling a request as quickly as the requestor would like.
(3) Communicate with requestor. Communication is usually the key to a smooth public records process for both requestors and agencies. Clear requests for a small number of records usually do not require predelivery communication with the requestor. However, when an agency receives a large or unclear request, the agency should communicate with the requestor to clarify the request. If the request is modified orally, the public records officer or designee should memorialize the communication in writing.
For large requests, the agency may ask the requestor to prioritize the request so that he or she receives the most important records first. If feasible, the agency should provide periodic updates to the requestor of the progress of the request. Similarly, the requestor should periodically communicate with the agency and promptly answer any clarification questions. Sometimes a requestor finds the records he or she is seeking at the beginning of a request. If so, the requestor should communicate with the agency that the requested records have been provided and that he or she is canceling the remainder of the request. If the requestor's cancellation communication is not in writing, the agency should confirm it in writing.
(4) Failure to provide initial response within five business days. Within five business days of receiving a request, an agency must provide an initial response to requestor. The initial response must do one of four things:
(a) Provide the record;
(b) Acknowledge that the agency has received the request and provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will require to fully respond;
(c) Seek a clarification of the request; or
(d) Deny the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency's failure to provide an initial response is arguably a violation of the act.2
(5) No duty to create records. An agency is not obligated to create a new record to satisfy a records request.4 However, sometimes it is easier for an agency to create a record responsive to the request rather than collecting and making available voluminous records that contain small pieces of the information sought by the requestor or find itself in a controversy about whether the request requires the creation of a new record. The decision to create a new record is left to the discretion of the agency. If the agency is considering creating a new record instead of disclosing the underlying records, it should obtain the consent of the requestor to ensure that the requestor is not actually seeking the underlying records.
(6) Provide a reasonable estimate of the time to fully respond. Unless it is providing the records or claiming an exemption from disclosure within the five-business day period, an agency must provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fully respond to the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. Fully responding can mean processing the request (assembling records, redacting, preparing a withholding index, or notifying third parties named in the records who might seek an injunction against disclosure) or determining if the records are exempt from disclosure.
An estimate must be "reasonable." The act provides a requestor a quick and simple method of challenging the reasonableness of an agency's estimate. RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2). See WAC 44-14-08004 (5)(b). The burden of proof is on the agency to prove its estimate is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2).
To provide a "reasonable" estimate, an agency should not use the same estimate for every request. An agency should roughly calculate the time it will take to respond to the request and send estimates of varying lengths, as appropriate. Some very large requests can legitimately take months or longer to fully provide. There is no standard amount of time for fulfilling a request so reasonable estimates should vary.
Some agencies send form letters with thirty-day estimates to all requestors, no matter the size or complexity of the request. Form letter thirty-day estimates are rarely "reasonable" because an agency, which has the burden of proof, could find it difficult to prove that every single request it receives would take the same thirty-day period.
In order to avoid unnecessary litigation over the reasonableness of an estimate, an agency should briefly explain to the requestor the basis for the estimate in the initial response. The explanation need not be elaborate but should allow the requestor to make a threshold determination of whether he or she should question that estimate further or has a basis to seek judicial review of the reasonableness of the estimate.
An agency should either fulfill the request within the estimated time or, if warranted, communicate with the requestor about clarifications or the need for a revised estimate. An agency should not ignore a request and then continuously send extended estimates. Routine extensions with little or no action to fulfill the request would show that the previous estimates probably were not "reasonable." Extended estimates are appropriate when the circumstances have changed (such as an increase in other requests or discovering that the request will require extensive redaction). An estimate can be revised when appropriate, but unwarranted serial extensions have the effect of denying a requestor access to public records.
(7) Seek clarification of a request or additional time. An agency may seek a clarification of an "unclear" request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency can only seek a clarification when the request is objectively "unclear." Seeking a "clarification" of an objectively clear request delays access to public records.
If the requestor fails to clarify an unclear request, the agency need not respond to it further. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. If the requestor does not respond to the agency's request for a clarification within thirty days of the agency's request, the agency may consider the request abandoned. If the agency considers the request abandoned, it should send a closing letter to the requestor.
An agency may take additional time to provide the records or deny the request if it is awaiting a clarification. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. After providing the initial response and perhaps even beginning to assemble the records, an agency might discover it needs to clarify a request and is allowed to do so. A clarification could also affect a reasonable estimate.
(8) Preserving requested records. If a requested record is scheduled shortly for destruction, and the agency receives a public records request for it, the record cannot be destroyed until the request is resolved. RCW 42.17.290/126.96.36.199 Once a request has been closed, the agency can destroy the requested records in accordance with its retention schedule.
(9) Searching for records. An agency must conduct an objectively reasonable search for responsive records. A requestor is not required to "ferret out" records on his or her own.6 A reasonable agency search usually begins with the public records officer for the agency or a records coordinator for a department of the agency deciding where the records are likely to be and who is likely to know where they are. One of the most important parts of an adequate search is to decide how wide the search will be. If the agency is small, it might be appropriate to initially ask all agency employees if they have responsive records. If the agency is larger, the agency may choose to initially ask only the staff of the department or departments of an agency most likely to have the records. For example, a request for records showing or discussing payments on a public works project might initially be directed to all staff in the finance and public works departments if those departments are deemed most likely to have the responsive documents, even though other departments may have copies or alternative versions of the same documents. Meanwhile, other departments that may have documents should be instructed to preserve their records in case they are later deemed to be necessary to respond to the request. The agency could notify the requestor which departments are being surveyed for the documents so the requestor may suggest other departments. It is better to be over inclusive rather than under inclusive when deciding which staff should be contacted, but not everyone in an agency needs to be asked if there is no reason to believe he or she has responsive records. An e-mail to staff selected as most likely to have responsive records is usually sufficient. Such an e-mail also allows an agency to document whom it asked for records.
Agency policies should require staff to promptly respond to inquiries about responsive records from the public records officer.
After records which are deemed responsive are located, an agency should take reasonable steps to narrow down the number of records to those which are responsive. In some cases, an agency might find it helpful to consult with the requestor on the scope of the documents to be assembled. An agency cannot "bury" a requestor with nonresponsive documents. However, an agency is allowed to provide arguably, but not clearly, responsive records to allow the requestor to select the ones he or she wants, particularly if the requestor is unable or unwilling to help narrow the scope of the documents.
(10) Expiration of reasonable estimate. An agency should provide a record within the time provided in its reasonable estimate or communicate with the requestor that additional time is required to fulfill the request based on specified criteria. Unjustified failure to provide the record by the expiration of the estimate is a denial of access to the record.
(11) Notice to affected third parties. Sometimes an agency decides it must release all or a part of a public record affecting a third party. The third party can file an action to obtain an injunction to prevent an agency from disclosing it, but the third party must prove the record or portion of it is exempt from disclosure.7 RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Before sending a notice, an agency should have a reasonable belief that the record is arguably exempt. Notices to affected third parties when the records could not reasonably be considered exempt might have the effect of unreasonably delaying the requestor's access to a disclosable record.
The act provides that before releasing a record an agency may, at its "option," provide notice to a person named in a public record or to whom the record specifically pertains (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. This would include all of those whose identity could reasonably be ascertained in the record and who might have a reason to seek to prevent the release of the record. An agency has wide discretion to decide whom to notify or not notify. First, an agency has the "option" to notify or not (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Second, if it acted in good faith, an agency cannot be held liable for its failure to notify enough people under the act. RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060. However, if an agency had a contractual obligation to provide notice of a request but failed to do so, the agency might lose the immunity provided by RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060 because breaching the agreement probably is not a "good faith" attempt to comply with the act.
The practice of many agencies is to give ten days' notice. Many agencies expressly indicate the deadline date to avoid any confusion. More notice might be appropriate in some cases, such as when numerous notices are required, but every additional day of notice is another day the potentially disclosable record is being withheld. When it provides a notice, the agency should include the notice period in the "reasonable estimate" it provides to a requestor.
The notice informs the third party that release will occur on the stated date unless he or she obtains an order from a court enjoining release. The requestor has an interest in any legal action to prevent the disclosure of the records he or she requested. Therefore, the agency's notice should inform the third party that he or she should name the requestor as a party to any action to enjoin disclosure. If an injunctive action is filed, the third party or agency should name the requestor as a party or, at a minimum, must inform the requestor of the action to allow the requestor to intervene.
(12) Later discovered records. If the agency becomes aware of the existence of records responsive to a request which were not provided, the agency should notify the requestor in writing and provide a brief explanation of the circumstances.
|Notes:||1See also Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (1998).|
|2See Smith v. Okanogan County, 100 Wn. App. 7, 13, 994 P.2d 857 (2000) ("When an agency fails to respond as provided in RCW 42.17.320 (42.56.520), it violates the act and the individual requesting the public record is entitled to a statutory penalty.").|
|3While an agency can fulfill requests out of order, an agency is not allowed to ignore a large request while it is exclusively fulfilling smaller requests. The agency should strike a balance between fulfilling small and large requests.|
|4Smith, 100 Wn. App. at 14.|
|5An exception is some state-agency employee personnel records. RCW 42.17.295/42.56.110.|
|6Daines v. Spokane County, 111 Wn. App. 342, 349, 44 P.3d 909 (2002) ("an applicant need not exhaust his or her own ingenuity to 'ferret out' records through some combination of 'intuition and diligent research'”).|
|7The agency holding the record can also file a RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540 injunctive action to establish that it is not required to release the record or portion of it.|
An agency can, of course, provide the records sooner than five business days. Providing the "fullest assistance" to a requestor would mean providing a readily available record as soon as possible. For example, an agency might routinely prepare a premeeting packet of documents three days in advance of a city council meeting. The packet is readily available so the agency should provide it to a requestor on the same day of the request so he or she can have it for the council meeting.
(2) Means of providing access. An agency must make nonexempt public records "available" for inspection or provide a copy. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. An agency is only required to make records "available" and has no duty to explain the meaning of public records.1 Making records available is often called "access."
Access to a public record can be provided by allowing inspection of the record, providing a copy, or posting the record on the agency's web site and assisting the requestor in finding it (if necessary). An agency must mail a copy of records if requested and if the requestor pays the actual cost of postage and the mailing container.2 The requestor can specify which method of access (or combination, such as inspection and then copying) he or she prefers. Different processes apply to requests for inspection versus copying (such as copy charges) so an agency should clarify with a requestor whether he or she seeks to inspect or copy a public record.
An agency can provide access to a public record by posting it on its web site. If requested, an agency should provide reasonable assistance to a requestor in finding a public record posted on its web site. If the requestor does not have internet access, the agency may provide access to the record by allowing the requestor to view the record on a specific computer terminal at the agency open to the public. An agency is not required to do so. Despite the availability of the record on the agency's web site, a requestor can still make a public records request and inspect the record or obtain a copy of it by paying the appropriate per-page copying charge.
(3) Providing records in installments. The act now provides that an agency must provide records "if applicable, on a partial or installment basis as records that are part of a larger set of requested records are assembled or made ready for inspection or disclosure." RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. The purpose of this provision is to allow requestors to obtain records in installments as they are assembled and to allow agencies to provide records in logical batches. The provision is also designed to allow an agency to only assemble the first installment and then see if the requestor claims or reviews it before assembling the next installments.
Not all requests should be provided in installments. For example, a request for a small number of documents which are located at nearly the same time should be provided all at once. Installments are useful for large requests when, for example, an agency can provide the first box of records as an installment. An agency has wide discretion to determine when providing records in installments is "applicable." However, an agency cannot use installments to delay access by, for example, calling a small number of documents an "installment" and sending out separate notifications for each one. The agency must provide the "fullest assistance" and the "most timely possible action on requests" when processing requests. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100.
(4) Failure to provide records. A "denial" of a request can occur when an agency:
Does not have the record;
Fails to respond to a request;
Claims an exemption of the entire record or a portion of it; or
Without justification, fails to provide the record after the reasonable estimate expires.
(a) When the agency does not have the record. An agency is only required to provide access to public records it has or has used.3 An agency is not required to create a public record in response to a request.
An agency must only provide access to public records in existence at the time of the request. An agency is not obligated to supplement responses. Therefore, if a public record is created or comes into the possession of the agency after the request is received by the agency, it is not responsive to the request and need not be provided. A requestor must make a new request to obtain subsequently created public records.
Sometimes more than one agency holds the same record. When more than one agency holds a record, and a requestor makes a request to the first agency, the first agency cannot respond to the request by telling the requestor to obtain the record from the second agency. Instead, an agency must provide access to a record it holds regardless of its availability from another agency.4
An agency is not required to provide access to records that were not requested. An agency does not "deny" a request when it does not provide records that are outside the scope of the request because they were never asked for.
(b) Claiming exemptions.
(i) Redactions. If a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure, but the remainder is not, an agency generally is required to redact (black out) the exempt portion and then provide the remainder. RCW 42.17.310(2)/42.56.210(2). There are a few exceptions.5 Withholding an entire record where only a portion of it is exempt violates the act.6 Some records are almost entirely exempt but small portions remain nonexempt. For example, information revealing the identity of a crime victim is exempt from disclosure. RCW 42.17.310 (1)(e)/42.56.210 (1)(e). If a requestor requested a police report in a case in which charges have been filed, the agency must redact the victim's identifying information but provide the rest of the report.
Statistical information "not descriptive of any readily identifiable person or persons" is generally not subject to redaction or withholding. RCW 42.17.310(2)/42.56.210(2). For example, if a statute exempted the identity of a person who had been assessed a particular kind of penalty, and an agency record showed the amount of penalties assessed against various persons, the agency must provide the record with the names of the persons redacted but with the penalty amounts remaining.
Originals should not be redacted. For paper records, an agency should redact materials by first copying the record and then either using a black marker on the copy or covering the exempt portions with copying tape, and then making a copy. It is often a good practice to keep the initial copies which were redacted in case there is a need to make additional copies for disclosure or to show what was redacted.
(ii) Brief explanation of withholding. When an agency claims an exemption for an entire record or portion of one, it must inform the requestor of the statutory exemption and provide a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record or portion withheld. RCW 42.17.310(4)/42.56.210(4). The brief explanation should cite the statute the agency claims grants an exemption from disclosure. The brief explanation should provide enough information for a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the claimed exemption is proper. Nonspecific claims of exemption such as "proprietary" or "privacy" are insufficient.
One way to properly provide a brief explanation of the withheld record or redaction is for the agency to provide a withholding index. It identifies the type of record, its date and number of pages, and the author or recipient of the record (unless their identity is exempt).7 The withholding index need not be elaborate but should allow a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the agency has properly invoked the exemption.
(5) Notifying requestor that records are available. If the requestor sought to inspect the records, the agency should notify him or her that the entire request or an installment is available for inspection and ask the requestor to contact the agency to arrange for a mutually agreeable time for inspection.8 The notification should recite that if the requestor fails to inspect or copy the records or make other arrangements within thirty days of the date of the notification that the agency will close the request and refile the records. An agency might consider on a case-by-case basis sending the notification by certified mail to document that the requestor received it.
If the requestor sought copies, the agency should notify him or her of the projected costs and whether a copying deposit is required before the copies will be made. The notification can be oral to provide the most timely possible response.
(6) Documenting compliance. An agency should have a process to identify which records were provided to a requestor and the date of production. In some cases, an agency may wish to number-stamp or number-label paper records provided to a requestor to document which records were provided. The agency could also keep a copy of the numbered records so either the agency or requestor can later determine which records were or were not provided. However, the agency should balance the benefits of stamping or labeling the documents and making extra copies against the costs and burdens of doing so.
If memorializing which specific documents were offered for inspection is impractical, an agency might consider documenting which records were provided for inspection by making an index or list of the files or records made available for inspection.
|Notes:||1Bonamy v. City of Seattle, 92 Wn. App. 403, 409, 960 P.2d 447 (1998), review denied, 137 Wn.2d 1012, 978 P.2d 1099 (1999).|
|2Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Blaine Sch. Dist. No. 503, 86 Wn. App. 688, 695, 937 P.2d 1176 (1997).|
|3Sperr v. City of Spokane, 123 Wn. App. 132, 136-37, 96 P.3d 1012 (2004).|
|4Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123, 132, 580 P.2d 246 (1978).|
|5The two main exceptions to the redaction requirement are state "tax information" (RCW 82.32.330 (1)(c)) and law enforcement case files in active cases (Newman v. King County, 133 Wn.2d 565, 574, 947 P.2d 712 (1997). Neither of these two kinds of records must be redacted but rather may be withheld in their entirety.|
|6Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local No. 27 v. Hollister, 48 Wn. App. 129, 132, 737 P.2d 1302 (1987).|
|7Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 271, n.18, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) ("PAWS II").|
|8For smaller requests, the agency might simply provide them with the initial response or earlier so no notification is necessary.|
If a requestor fails to claim or review the records or an installment after the expiration of thirty days, an agency is authorized to stop assembling the remainder of the records or making copies. RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120. If the request is abandoned, the agency is no longer bound by the records retention requirements of the act prohibiting the scheduled destruction of a requested record. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100.
If a requestor fails to claim or review the records or any installment of them within the thirty-day notification period, the agency may close the request and refile the records. If a requestor who has failed to claim or review the records then requests the same or almost identical records again, the agency, which has the flexibility to prioritize its responses to be most efficient to all requestors, can process the repeat request for the now-refiled records as a new request after other pending requests.
(2) Time, place, and conditions for inspection. Inspection should occur at a time mutually agreed (within reason) by the agency and requestor. An agency should not limit the time for inspection to times in which the requestor is unavailable. Requestors cannot dictate unusual times for inspection. The agency is only required to allow inspection during the agency's customary office hours. RCW 42.17.280/42.56.090. Often an agency will provide the records in a conference room or other office area.
The inspection of records cannot create "excessive interference" with the other "essential functions" of the agency. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. Similarly, copying records at agency facilities cannot "unreasonably disrupt" the operations of the agency. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080.
An agency may have an agency employee observe the inspection or copying of records by the requestor to ensure they are not destroyed or disorganized. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. A requestor cannot alter, mark on, or destroy an original record during inspection. To select a paper record for copying during an inspection, a requestor must use a nonpermanent method such as a removable adhesive note or paper clip.
Inspection times can be broken down into reasonable segments such as half days. However, inspection times cannot be broken down into unreasonable segments to either harass the agency or delay access to the timely inspection of records.
|Note:||1See, e.g., WAC 296-06-120 (department of labor and industries provides thirty days to claim or review records).|
(2) Returning assembled records. An agency is not required to keep assembled records set aside indefinitely. This would "unreasonably disrupt" the operations of the agency. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. After a request has been closed, an agency should return the assembled records to their original locations. Once returned, the records are no longer subject to the prohibition on destroying records scheduled for destruction under the agency's retention schedule. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100.
(3) Retain copy of records provided. In some cases, it may be wise for the agency to keep a separate copy of the records it copied and provided in response to a request. This allows the agency to document what was provided. A growing number of requests are for a copy of the records provided to another requestor, which can easily be fulfilled if the agency retains a copy of the records provided to the first requestor. The copy of the records provided should be retained for a period of time consistent with the agency's retention schedules for records related to disclosure of documents.
(List other laws)
(2) The (agency) is prohibited by statute from disclosing lists of individuals for commercial purposes.
Comments to WAC 44-14-060
An exemption from disclosure will be narrowly construed in favor of disclosure. RCW 42.17.251/42.56.030. An exemption from disclosure must specifically exempt a record or portion of a record from disclosure. RCW 42.17.260(1)/42.56.070(1). An exemption will not be inferred.1
An agency cannot define the scope of a statutory exemption through rule making or policy.2 An agency agreement or promise not to disclose a record cannot make a disclosable record exempt from disclosure. RCW 42.17.260(1)/42.56.070(1).3 Any agency contract regarding the disclosure of records should recite that the act controls.
An agency must describe why each withheld record or redacted portion of a record is exempt from disclosure. RCW 42.17.310(4)/42.56.210(4). One way to describe why a record was withheld or redacted is by using a withholding index.
After invoking an exemption in its response, an agency may revise its original claim of exemption in a response to a motion to show cause.4
Exemptions are "permissive rather than mandatory." Op. Att'y Gen. 1 (1980), at 5. Therefore, an agency has the discretion to provide an exempt record. However, in contrast to a waivable "exemption," an agency cannot provide a record when a statute makes it "confidential" or otherwise prohibits disclosure. For example, the Health Care Information Act generally prohibits the disclosure of medical information without the patient's consent. RCW 70.02.020(1). If a statute classifies information as "confidential" or otherwise prohibits disclosure, an agency has no discretion to release a record or the confidential portion of it.5 Some statutes provide civil and criminal penalties for the release of particular "confidential" records. See RCW 82.32.330(5) (release of certain state tax information a misdemeanor).
(2) "Privacy" exemption. There is no general "privacy" exemption. Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988).6 However, a few specific exemptions incorporate privacy as one of the elements of the exemption. For example, personal information in agency employee files is exempt to the extent that disclosure would violate the employee's right to "privacy." RCW 42.17.310 (1)(b)/42.56.210 (1)(b). "Privacy" is then one of the elements, in addition to the others in RCW 42.17.310 (1)(b)/42.56.210 (1)(b), that an agency or a third party resisting disclosure must prove.
"Privacy" is defined in RCW 42.17.255/42.56.050 as the disclosure of information that "(1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public." This is a two-part test requiring the party seeking to prevent disclosure to prove both elements.7
Because "privacy" is not a stand-alone exemption, an agency cannot claim RCW 42.17.255/42.56.050 as an exemption.8
(3) Attorney-client privilege. The attorney-client privilege statute, RCW 5.60.060 (2)(a), is an "other statute" exemption from disclosure.9 In addition, RCW 42.17.310 (1)(j)/42.56.210 (1)(j) exempts attorney work-product involving a "controversy," which means completed, existing, or reasonably anticipated litigation involving the agency.10 The exact boundaries of the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine is beyond the scope of these comments. However, in general, the attorney-client privilege covers records reflecting communications transmitted in confidence between a public official or employee of a public agency acting in the performance of his or her duties and an attorney serving in the capacity of legal advisor for the purpose of rendering or obtaining legal advice, and records prepared by the attorney in furtherance of the rendition of legal advice. The attorney-client privilege does not exempt records merely because they reflect communications in meetings where legal counsel was present or because a record or copy of a record was provided to legal counsel if the other elements of the privilege are not met.11 A guidance document prepared by the attorney general's office on the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine is available at www.atg.wa.gov/records/modelrules.
(4) Deliberative process exemption. RCW 42.17.310 (1)(i)/42.56.210 (1)(i) exempts "Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended" except if the record is cited by the agency.
In order to rely on this exemption, an agency must show that the records contain predecisional opinions or recommendations of subordinates expressed as part of a deliberative process; that disclosure would be injurious to the deliberative or consultative function of the process; that disclosure would inhibit the flow of recommendations, observations, and opinions; and finally, that the materials covered by the exemption reflect policy recommendations and opinions and not the raw factual data on which a decision is based.12 Courts have held that this exemption is "severely limited" by its purpose, which is to protect the free flow of opinions by policy makers.13 It applies only to those portions of a record containing recommendations, opinions, and proposed policies; it does not apply to factual data contained in the record.14 The exemption does not apply to records or portions of records concerning the implementation of policy or the factual basis for the policy.15 The exemption does not apply merely because a record is called a "draft" or stamped "draft." Recommendations that are actually implemented lose their protection from disclosure after they have been adopted by the agency.16
(5) "Overbroad" exemption. There is no "overbroad" exemption. RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. See WAC 44-14-04002(3).
(6) Commercial use exemption. The act does not allow an agency to provide access to "lists of individuals requested for commercial purposes." RCW 42.17.260(9)/42.56.070(9). An agency may require a requestor to sign a declaration that he or she will not put a list of individuals in the record to use for a commercial purpose.17 This authority is limited to a list of individuals, not a list of companies.18 A requestor who signs a declaration promising not to use a list of individuals for a commercial purpose, but who then violates this declaration, could arguably be charged with the crime of false swearing. RCW 9A.72.040.19
(7) Trade secrets. Many agencies hold sensitive proprietary information of businesses they regulate. For example, an agency might require an applicant for a regulatory approval to submit designs for a product it produces. A record is exempt from disclosure if it constitutes a "trade secret" under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, chapter 19.108 RCW.20 However, the definition of a "trade secret" can be very complex and often the facts showing why the record is or is not a trade secret are only known by the potential holder of the trade secret who submitted the record in question.
When an agency receives a request for a record that might be a trade secret, often it does not have enough information to determine whether the record arguably qualifies as a "trade secret." An agency is allowed additional time under the act to determine if an exemption might apply. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520.
When an agency cannot determine whether a requested record contains a "trade secret," usually it should communicate with the requestor that the agency is providing the potential holder of the trade secret an opportunity to object to the disclosure. The agency should then contact the potential holder of the trade secret in question and state that the record will be released in a certain amount of time unless the holder files a court action seeking an injunction prohibiting the agency from disclosing the record under RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Alternatively, the agency can ask the potential holder of the trade secret for an explanation of why it contends the record is a trade secret, and state that if the record is not a trade secret or otherwise exempt from disclosure that the agency intends to release it. The agency should inform the potential holder of a trade secret that its explanation will be shared with the requestor. The explanation can assist the agency in determining whether it will claim the trade secret exemption. If the agency concludes that the record is arguably not exempt, it should provide a notice of intent to disclose unless the potential holder of the trade secret obtains an injunction preventing disclosure under RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540.
As a general matter, many agencies do not assert the trade secret exemption on behalf of the potential holder of the trade secret but rather allow the potential holder to seek an injunction.
|Notes:||1Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 262, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) ("PAWS II").|
|2Servais v. Port of Bellingham, 127 Wn.2d 820, 834, 904 P.2d 1124 (1995).|
|3Spokane Police Guild v. Liquor Control Bd., 112 Wn.2d 30, 40, 769 P.2d 283 (1989); Van Buren v. Miller, 22 Wn. App. 836, 845, 592 P.2d 671, review denied, 92 Wn.2d 1021 (1979).|
|4PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 253.|
|5Op. Att'y Gen. 7 (1986).|
|6See RCW 42.17.255/42.56.050 ("privacy" linked to rights of privacy "specified in (the act) as express exemptions").|
|7King County v. Sheehan, 114 Wn. App. 325, 344, 57 P.3d 307 (2002).|
|8Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988), at 3 ("The legislature clearly repudiated the notion that agencies could withhold records based solely on general concerns about privacy.").|
|9Hangartner v. City of Seattle, 151 Wn.2d 439, 453, 90 P.3d 26 (2004).|
|10Dawson v. Daly, 120 Wn.2d 782, 791, 845 P.2d 995 (1993).|
|11This summary comes from the attorney general's proposed definition of the privilege in the first version of House Bill No. 1758 (2005).|
|12PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 256.|
|13Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123, 133, 580 P.2d 246 (1978); PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 256.|
|14PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 256.|
|15Cowles Pub. Co. v. City of Spokane, 69 Wn. App. 678, 685, 849 P.2d 1271 (1993).|
|16Dawson, 120 Wn.2d at 793.|
|17Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988). However, a list of individuals applying for professional licensing or examination may be provided to professional associations recognized by the licensing or examination board. RCW 42.17.260(9)/42.56.070(9).|
|18Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (1998).|
|19RCW 9A.72.040 provides: "(1) A person is guilty of false swearing if he makes a false statement, which he knows to be false, under an oath required or authorized by law. (2) False swearing is a gross misdemeanor." RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080 authorizes an agency to determine if a requestor will use a list of individuals for commercial purpose. See Op. Att'y Gen. 12 (1988), at 10-11 (agency could require requestor to sign affidavit of noncommercial use).|
|20PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 262.|
COSTS OF PROVIDING COPIES OF PUBLIC RECORDS
(If agency decides to charge more than fifteen cents per page, use the following language:) The (name of agency) charges (amount) per page for a standard black and white photocopy of a record selected by a requestor. A statement of the factors and the manner used to determine this charge is available from the public records officer.
Before beginning to make the copies, the public records officer or designee may require a deposit of up to ten percent of the estimated costs of copying all the records selected by the requestor. The public records officer or designee may also require the payment of the remainder of the copying costs before providing all the records, or the payment of the costs of copying an installment before providing that installment. The (name of agency) will not charge sales tax when it makes copies of public records.
(2) Costs for electronic records. The cost of electronic copies of records shall be (amount) for information on a floppy disk and (amount) for information on a CD-ROM.
(3) Costs of mailing. The (name of agency) may also charge actual costs of mailing, including the cost of the shipping container.
(4) Payment. Payment may be made by cash, check, or money order to the (name of agency).
Comments to WAC 44-14-070
(2) Standard photocopy charges. Standard photocopies are black and white 8x11 paper copies. An agency can choose to calculate its copying charges for standard photocopies or to opt for a default copying charge of no more than fifteen cents per page.
If it attempts to charge more than the fifteen cents per page maximum for photocopies, an agency must establish a statement of the "actual cost" of the copies it provides, which must include a "statement of the factors and the manner used to the determine the actual per page cost." RCW 42.17.260(7)/42.56.070(7). An agency may include the costs "directly incident" to providing the copies such as paper, copying equipment, and staff time to make the copies. RCW 42.17.260 (7)(a)/42.56.070 (7)(a).2 An agency failing to properly establish a copying charge in excess of the default fifteen cents per page maximum is limited to the default amount. RCW 42.17.260 (7)(a) and (b)/42.56.070 (7)(a) and (b) and 42.17.300/42.56.120.
If it charges more than the default rate of fifteen cents per page, an agency must provide its calculations and the reasoning for its charges. RCW 42.17.260(7)/42.56.070(7) and 42.17.300/188.8.131.52 A price list with no analysis is insufficient. An agency's calculations and reasoning need not be elaborate but should be detailed enough to allow a requestor or court to determine if the agency has properly calculated its copying charges. An agency should generally compare its copying charges to those of commercial copying centers.
If an agency opts for the default copying charge of fifteen cents per page, it need not calculate its actual costs. RCW 42.17.260(8)/42.56.070(8).
(3) Charges for copies other than standard photocopies. Nonstandard copies include color copies, engineering drawings, and photographs. An agency can charge its actual costs for nonstandard photocopies. RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120. For example, when an agency provides records in an electronic format by putting the records on a disk, it may charge its actual costs for the disk. The agency can provide a requestor with documentation for its actual costs by providing a catalog or price list from a vendor.
(4) Copying charges apply to copies selected by requestor. Often a requestor will seek to inspect a large number of records but only select a smaller group of them for copying. Copy charges can only be charged for the records selected by the requestor. RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120 (charges allowed for "providing" copies to requestor).
The requestor should specify whether he or she seeks inspection or copying. The agency should inform the requestor that inspection is free. This can be noted on the agency's request form. If the requestor seeks copies, then the agency should inform the requestor of the copying charges for the request. An agency should not assemble a large number of records, fail to inform the requestor that inspection is free, and then attempt to charge for copying all the records.
Sometimes a requestor will choose to pay for the copying of a large batch of records without inspecting them. This is allowed, provided that the requestor is informed that inspection is free. Informing the requestor on a request form that inspection is free is sufficient.
(5) Use of outside vendor. An agency is not required to copy records at its own facilities. An agency can send the project to a commercial copying center and bill the requestor for the amount charged by the vendor. An agency is encouraged to do so when an outside vendor can make copies more quickly and less expensively than an agency. An agency can arrange with the requestor for him or her to pay the vendor directly. An agency cannot charge the default fifteen cents per page rate when its "actual cost" at a copying vendor is less. The default rate is only for agency-produced copies. RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120.
(6) Sales tax. An agency cannot charge sales tax on copies it makes at its own facilities. RCW 82.12.02525.
(7) Costs of mailing. If a requestor asks an agency to mail copies, the agency may charge for the actual cost of postage and the shipping container (such as an envelope). RCW 42.17.260 (7)(a)/42.56.070 (7)(a).
|Notes:||1See also Op. Att'y Gen. 6 (1991).|
|2The costs of staff time is allowed only for making copies. An agency cannot charge for staff time for locating records or other noncopying functions. See RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120 ("No fee shall be charged for locating public documents and making them available for copying.").|
|3See also Op. Att'y Gen. 6 (1991) (agency must "justify" its copy charges).|
When copying is completed, the agency can require the payment of the remainder of the copying charges before providing the records. For example, a requestor makes a request for records that comprise one box of paper documents. The requestor selects the entire box for copying. The agency estimates that the box contains three thousand pages of records. The agency charges ten cents per page so the cost would be three hundred dollars. The agency obtains a ten percent deposit of thirty dollars and then begins to copy the records. The total number of pages turns out to be two thousand nine hundred so the total cost is two hundred ninety dollars. The thirty dollar deposit is credited to the two hundred ninety dollars. The agency requires payment of the remaining two hundred sixty dollars before providing the records to the requestor.
(2) Copying charges for each installment. If an agency provides records in installments, the agency may charge and collect all applicable copying fees (not just the ten percent deposit) for each installment. RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120. The agency may agree to provide an installment without first receiving payment for that installment.
|Note:||1See RCW 42.17.300/42.56.120 (ten percent deposit for "a request").|
REVIEW OF DENIALS OF PUBLIC RECORDS
(2) Consideration of petition for review. The public records officer shall promptly provide the petition and any other relevant information to (public records officer's supervisor or other agency official designated by the agency to conduct the review). That person will immediately consider the petition and either affirm or reverse the denial within two business days following the (agency's) receipt of the petition, or within such other time as (name of agency) and the requestor mutually agree to.
(3) (Applicable to state agencies only.) Review by the attorney general's office. Pursuant to RCW 42.17.325/42.56.530, if the (name of state agency) denies a requestor access to public records because it claims the record is exempt in whole or in part from disclosure, the requestor may request the attorney general's office to review the matter. The attorney general has adopted rules on such requests in WAC 44-06-160.
(4) Judicial review. Any person may obtain court review of denials of public records requests pursuant to RCW 42.17.340/42.56.550 at the conclusion of two business days after the initial denial regardless of any internal administrative appeal.
Comments to WAC 44-14-080
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(6)/42.56.550(6).
(3) Procedure. 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(2)/42.56.550(2).
(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
|Notes:||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.").|
|2See, e.g., 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).|
|10RCW 42.17.340(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).|