A&A: Agency claims my CPRA requests via email are “not public records act request”

Q: In response to an emailed request for public records, the local agency responded that my “series of emails were not a public records act request.” In turn, they withheld the requested information.

Of course, it could be that I’ve been not asking for the right thing in the appropriate way?  I’ve been requesting information based on the Attorney General’s  2004 PRA Summary, page 3: “The essence of the CPRA is to provide access to information, not merely documents and files.” The AG cites San Gabriel Tribune v. Superior Court (1983) 143 Cal.App.3rd 762, 774 and Cook v. Craig (1976) 55 Cal.App. 3rd 773, 782. Perhaps I’m making my requests in too using language that is not specific enough.  Please advise.

A: It should not matter that your request was made in an email versus a hard-copy letter. If your emails were clearly “requests” that “reasonably describe[d] an identifiable record or records,” then it seems that the agency is obligated to respond to those requests under the provisions outlined in the Public Records Act. Gov’t Code § 6253(b).

As to your second inquiry re a request for information vs. a request for records, I agree that the Attorney General’s Summary of the California Public Records Act does state that the essence of the Act is to “provide access to information, not merely documents and files,” but it goes on to state that the ultimate goal of the Act is to provide documents containing the information, as opposed to the information itself. In other words, except in the instance of electronic records, the agency is not required to compile data or answer questions.

Thus, the trick is to, if possible, describe the records that the agency keeps that contain the information you want, and not just the information that you are seeking.

In other words, you may want to make sure to state that you request “all records containing the following information.”

There is no set form or process that must be followed to make a public records, except that a request must “reasonably describe an identifiable record or records.” Government Code § 6253(b). Requests need not even be in writing, although doing so creates a record of when you made your request (in case you decide to litigate in the future).

You may want to review your emailed requests to the agency and compile them into a single request (ensuring that you are asking for records, and not information) in the form of a letter. You can find a sample request letter at the First Amendment Coalition web site at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/category/resources/access-to-records/.

If you feel that the agency is improperly denying your public records request, your ultimate recourse is to file a lawsuit under Government Code § 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 § 6259(d).

In any correspondence you have with county counsel, you may want to point out that attorney’s fees are available should you take the agency to court and prevail.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.