Large Public Records Act judgment against DSHS overturned
The Court of Appeals has reversed the highest public records act judgment ever awarded against a state agency in Washington.
The Court of Appeals rules that the Department of Social and Health Services did not violate the Public Records Act (PRA) and, as a result, is not liable for $649,896 of penalties, attorney fees and costs levied by a Pierce County superior court ruling on a lawsuit filed on behalf of Amber Wright in 2011. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court on every aspect of the decision.
DSHS Public Records/Privacy Officer Kristal Wiitala said, “The Court of Appeals agreed that our interpretation of the Public Records Act (PRA) is correct. We did not break the law. DSHS strongly believes in compliance with the PRA. When penalties and attorneys’ fees are improperly assessed, it does not improve compliance with the law and only hurts the people the agency serves by taking funds away from important social service programs. DSHS is gratified that the appellate court corrected the errors made by the trial court.”
The appeals court agreed with the Department’s interpretation that the Public Records Act (PRA) does not apply to the requested juvenile records, as a separate state law governs access to those records. The Appeals Court also ruled that DSHS could not be penalized for failing to produce records that were not specifically requested by Wright under the PRA. Under the PRA, the requesting party must identify requested documents with enough clarity to allow the department to locate them.
Although DSHS provided more than 5,000 pages of records to Wright, the lawsuit alleged that four documents were missed in the search. One record was an audio recording supplied later, one was a transcript that did not exist at the time of the request and the other two were general policies and protocols.
“We support the full disclosure and transparency goals of the PRA,” Wiitala said. “At the same time, we are not expected to be mind readers or to spend taxpayer’s money on searching for documents that could possibly relate, but were never requested.”
The case dates back to 2007, when Wright submitted her first request to DSHS requesting “her entire DSHS file.” She was sent a five-volume file that contained her juvenile administrative records which DSHS explained were being provided under the juvenile records act, chapter 13.50 RCW, rather than the PRA.
In 2008, Wright submitted a second request for “any and all documents related to Amber Wright.” A week later, DSHS notified her that her Children’s Administration records were confidential and exempt from public disclosure under chapter 42.56 RCW, but that she could receive child welfare records under chapter 13.50 RCW.
In 2010, Wright filed suit under the PRA against DSHS, claiming that DSHS failed to provide records under her records request, including the interview transcription and other “critical records including investigative protocols and policies.”