A&A: District won’t release legal bills from defending workers’ comp cases

Q: My client has a worker’s compensation case with the school district and made a public records act request in order to determine how much the school district is spending in her case and in total for legal defense of workers’ compensation matters. It is our belief that the attorney is not settling cases for his own profit. The district refuses to turn over that information

A: As I’m sure you know, under the Public Records Act, public records — which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code § 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public, and therefore must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

Thus, in order to justify withholding the documents you request, the school district must cite a specific exemption, and explain why it applies to the records you seek. Gov’t Code § 6253(c). It is possible that the school district is withholding the records based on either the pending litigation exemption (Gov’t Code § 6254(b)) or attorney-client privilege under the Evidence Code, which is incorporated into the Public Records Act by Government Code § 6254(k).

With respect to the pending litigation exemption, the fact that a requested record is “involved in litigation” may not be sufficient to allow the agency to withhold the record. The same would seem to be true with respect to the attorney-client privilege. Since the records you are seeking only contain financial information that reveals how much the district is paying this particular firm, it could be that these exemptions are not applicable. Even if you were requesting to see bills that were sent by the law firm to the district, the district could redact any descriptive information that might otherwise be considered attorney-client privileged.

Also, the fact that your client is involved in a legal dispute with the district would not prevent her from using the Public Records Act to get these records. The Act may be used to obtain documents generated in litigation in which the requester is a party. City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, 41 Cal. App. 4th 1083 (1996).

The district may also attempt to invoke the Act’s “catch-all” exemption, contained in Government Code § 6255(a). This exemption states that in order to justify withholding a record, the agency must show that “on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.” Gov’t Code § 6255(a). The burden of proof is on the agency to demonstrate “a clear overbalance on the side of confidentiality.” Michaelis, Montanari & Johnson v. Superior Court, 38 Cal. 4th 1065, 1071 (2006).

You might want to press the district on why it is refusing to disclose the requested records. Since the Act favors disclosure to the fullest extent, if any of the requested records can be segregated or redacted to still give you the information you seek, then the district should release with such segregation or redaction. Gov’t Code § 6253(a).

You can find additional information on the Public Records Act on the FAC’s https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/category/resources/access-to-records/.