Monday, March 31, 2014

Court of Appeal Rules CPRA Does Not Require Public Agencies to Disclose Officials’ Communications on Personal Accounts

On March 27, 2014, the California Court of Appeal held the California Public Records Act (CPRA) does not require public agencies to disclose officials’ communications about public business on personal email and cell phone accounts.  The Court held communications stored solely on private accounts are outside the reach of public records requests under the CPRA.   It is becoming increasingly common for public officials to conduct public business using private accounts.  While members of the public may seek disclosure of officials’ voicemails, text messages, and emails stored on public agencies’ accounts, communications on private accounts are protected from CPRA requests.

In June of 2009, Ted Smith requested, “voicemails, emails or text messages” on personal electronic devices about “matters concerning the City of San Jose” on private electronic devices owned by Mayor Chuck Reed, members of the City Council, and their staff.  The City agreed to produce records stored on its servers and those to or from private devices using City accounts, but refused to provide communications stored solely on personal accounts.  Smith responded by filing a lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court.  The Superior Court sided with Smith and granted his request. 

The Court of Appeal overruled the Superior Court in favor of the City.  The Court found officials’ communications stored solely on personal devices don’t fall within reach of CPRA requests because they are not “owned, used, or retained” by the public agency.  The Court acknowledged public policy concerns of the public’s right to know versus the burden on the agency to provide the information.  However, the Court determined the Legislature is better suited to make such public policy decisions.  

The Court acknowledged public agencies have the right to create its own rules for disclosure of communications related to public business.  In fact, the City of San Jose adopted a resolution addressing this very issue after Smith filed his lawsuit.  Resolution No. 75293 was adopted on March 2, 2010.  The resolution revises City Council Policy 0-33 and allows public access to all communications of the mayor, City Council members, or their staff, regarding public business on private devices.  Mayor Chuck Reed himself signed the resolution.  However, the Court stated that the resolution was not relevant to the Court’s interpretation of the CPRA.

The full court opinion is posted here.