A&A: What penalties have local governments faced for violating the CPRA?

Q: I’m developing program to teach our office staff how to handle PRAs, and am looking for some examples of local governments, preferably in California, that have been penalized for not abiding by the terms of the law.  Is a lawsuit the only way to remedy it?  Can you share any examples?

A: It is admirable that you are training your employees in how to respond to Public Records Act requests.  In general, it seems that agencies that take the time to ensure their employees are familiar with the Act and its requirements are ahead of the curve in ensuring the agency complies with the law in responding to requests for public records.

There is no administrative process a requester must first exhaust before bringing a suit.  Where an agency does not comply with the PRA in responding to a particular request, the requester may go straight to court—filing a lawsuit against the agency, per 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.  Government Code 6259(d) mandates that attorneys’ fees be awarded to the successful plaintiff.  Many published appellate court opinions remand to the trial court for a reasonable determination of fees, however, fees can run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

“[W]hen the plaintiff prevails and thus compels disclosure under the Act, an award of attorney’s fees and costs is mandatory.”

  • Fontana Police Dep’t v. Villegas-Banuelos, 74 Cal. App. 4th 1249, 1252 (1999), as modified (Sept. 30, 1999)(awarding fees to appellant who sought tape recordings of police department’s phone communications to which he legally was entitled, when department refused to turn them over unedited, and appellant had to compel production under the PRA);
  •  Garcia v. Governing Bd. of Bellflower Unified Sch. Dist., 220 Cal. App. 4th 1058, 1066 (2013), review denied (Jan. 15, 2014)(trial court acted within its discretion in awarding former school district employee $9,787.82 in attorney’s fees as the prevailing party on her action to compel disclosure of mold contamination information under the PRA );
  • Los Angeles Times v. Alameda Corridor Transp. Auth., 88 Cal. App. 4th 1381, 1384-85, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 29, 32 (2001)(document held by transit authority was partially disclosed only because newspaper sued to obtain it, and thus newspaper was entitled to attorney’s fees under PRA, even though newspaper was not successful in obtaining another document sought in suit).
  •   In Cmty. Youth Athletic Ctr. v. City of Nat’l City, 220 Cal. App. 4th 1385, 1396 (2013), review denied (Feb. 11, 2014), landowner brought an action against City for reverse validation, injunctive relief, and damages, in addition to seeking declaratory relief that the City violated PRA by failing to produce requested records.

The trial court ordered the City to pay landowner $1,906,516.75 in attorney’s fees, and the City appealed.  The appellate court determined landowner was the “prevailing” party under the PRA, even though City never released the requested records, which were lost or missing, as landowner obtained declaratory relief that there had been PRA violations.  The appellate court then remanded so the trial court could determine the reasonable apportionment of fees attributable the PRA claim.

While the two million dollar amount was not attributable entirely to the PRA claim, this case demonstrates just how expensive fees can get.

Additionally, in 2009, a court awarded the First Amendment Coalition $500,000 in attorneys’ fees in connection with a lawsuit it brought against the County of Santa Clara for GIS basemaps.  See County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301 (2009) and Attorney Matteo-Boehm honored by California Lawyer for victories in FAC cases 

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.