A&A: University claims to have a year to respond to document requests

Q. The Public Affairs director at the local State University claims that he can take four months to a year to respond with public records. This needs to be resolved as he is routinely months late with responses.

A. The Public Records Act gives local agencies 10 days to respond to a request for a copy of a public record; the time for responding can be extended by the agency for an additional 14 days in “unusual circumstances.” Gov’t Code § 6253(b) and (c). This section goes on to state: “No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days.

When the agency dispatches the determination, and if the agency determines that the request seeks disclosable public records, the agency shall state the estimated date and time when the records will be made available.” Gov’t Code § 6253(c). The code then states what might constitute “unusual circumstances,” including:
Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

Additionally, access to copies of records is to be provided “promptly,” Gov’t Code § 6253(b), and “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records. The notification of denial of any request for records required by Section 6255 shall set forth the names and titles or positions of each person responsible for the denial.” Gov’t Code § 6253(d).

Thus, the 10-day deadline is not a legal deadline for producing the actual records; however, under § 6253(b) and (d), once a determination has been made as to whether the records are disclosable, actual release of the records should promptly follow, especially considering that the person making the determination as to whether the records are disclosable will have probably already assembled and reviewed the records.

Finally, if the requester is only seeking to inspect the records (as opposed to getting copies of the records), the Act requires that such records be made available for inspection “at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as hereafter provided.” Gov’t Code § 6253(a).

Thus, it seems that four months to a year to respond to records request violates the plain language of the Act. You might consider writing to the individual who stated that it would take up to a year to produce the records, pointing out that the agency has 10 days to respond to your request (and 14 under “unusual circumstances,” which, if there are any, you would like to know about), and asking for specifics on whether the records you have requested are disclosable in the first place; if they are not disclosable, what exemption under the Act the agency is invoking; and if they are disclosable, the date and time that you may inspect them and/or pick up your copies of those records. You may want to point out that under the Act, the agency must make the records available “promptly.”

If an agency refuses to provide records under the Act, the ultimate recourse is filing a lawsuit under Government Code Section 6259. Such lawsuits are typically initiated by a verified petition (i.e., a request filed under oath) that asks the court to issue a writ of mandate, which is a type of order directing the public agency to take a specified action.

Attorney’s fees are available to a plaintiff who prevails in litigation filed pursuant to the Act, Government Code section 6259(d). In any follow-up correspondence you have with the university regarding the fact that you have not received the requested records, you may want to (subtly, but firmly) point out that attorney’s fees are available should you take the agency to court and prevail.

If you are looking for an attorney to represent you in this matter, you might consider trying the FAC’s Lawyer’s Assistance Request Form at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/lawyers-assistance-request-form/.