Thursday, March 2, 2017

CA Supreme Court: Public Records Act Applies to Public Business Conducted on Personal Accounts

The California Supreme Court ruled today that public officials' communications about public business is a public record, even if officials use personal accounts.  In City of San Jose v. Ted Smith, a local activist sought communications about a redevelopment project in downtown San Jose.  He made a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).  The request included any voicemails or emails from the Mayor of San Jose, the members of the City Council, and any staff regarding matters concerning the City of San Jose.  Initially, the trial court determined the requests to be valid.  The City appealed.

Then, the Court of Appeal reviewed the language of the CPRA.  The court ruled information held on private devices is not subject to CPRA.  The court reasoned the CPRA defines public records as writings owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency, not individual. The court believed this means individuals are not covered by the CPRA.

The California Supreme Court did not find this reasoning persuasive.  The legislative intent of the CPRA was to create a right of access to public information.  If the public document does not fall into a narrow exception the standard should be disclosure.  One notable exception is a law enforcement officer’s personnel file.

The Court reasoned the CPRA should be read broadly and construed to further the people’s right to access public documents.  If a document is used by a city official in conducting city business the document is retained by the city.  This is true regardless of where the document is stored.

The City's argued it should not have to look through personal email accounts for public records because it was too hard and would cost money.  The Court was unconvinced by this argument and held he government agency is required to disclose all records they can locate “with reasonable effort.”  However, it cannot avoid disclosure by declaring a request to be too burdensome.

Mastagni Holstedt filed an Amicus Curiae brief in the case representing more than a dozen public safety labor associations.  The brief emphasized how some high ranking public officials use their personal accounts to evade the requirements of the CPRA, especially in the context of collective bargaining and labor relations.  For example, during the Stockton bankruptcy, city officials communicated with purportedly independent outside consultants about modifying to their findings and recommendations using personal emails.  Prior to today’s ruling, government agencies could shield such information from disclosure under the CPRA.  Today’s decision puts an end to these practices.  Moreover, the Court's interpretation of the CPRA will likely be extended to information requests under public sector bargaining laws, such as the MMBA.  

From a labor perspective, permitting public officials, such as City managers, to bypass open records laws by using personal electronic devices would have adversely affected union access to information necessary to represent their members.  

The Court also provided guidance to public agencies for complying with these obligations while protecting privacy rights.  Notably, the Court recommended agencies require that employees use or copy their government accounts for all communications touching on public business.  In terms of searches, the agencies can comply by communicating the request to the employees and "then reasonably rely on these employees to search their own personal files, accounts, and devices for responsive material."  Attorneys David E. Mastagni, Isaac S. Stevens, and Jeffrey R. A. Edwards represented these amici.