A&A: FOIA request California State Parks internal investigation

Q: Last summer the nonprofit on whose behalf I am writing alleged that California State Parks had misappropriated $45,000 of restricted grant money. In October, State Parks conducted an internal investigation that exonerated the agency. State Parks has refused to release the investigator’s report, citing personnel issues. Can you advise us on how to file a FOIA request to get the report?

A: I am sorry that your nonprofit is having trouble getting hold of records related to the internal investigation conducted by State Parks.  Under California’s 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 must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.  If the agency is claiming a particular exemption, it must not only cite the particular exemption, but how it applies to the requested records. 

It is hard to imagine how the personnel exemption applies to the records that you seek.  This exemption is specifically designed for “[p]ersonnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”  Gov’t Code § 6254(c) (emph. added).  The records you seek would not seem to fall into this category, not only because they probably would not constitute “personnel files,” but they probably do not reveal any truly intimate details of personal and family life (vs. official business judgments and relationships) that this particular exemption was designed to protect. See, e.g., Bakersfield City School Dist. v. Sup. Ct., 118 Cal. App. 4th 1041, 1045 (2004); Braun v. City of Taft, 154 Cal. App. 3d 332, 343-44 (1984).

Further, even if the report you seek, or portions thereof, could be categorized as personnel records, the agency would still have to consider whether disclosure of the information would compromise substantial privacy interests, and whether the potential harm to privacy interests from disclosure outweigh the public interest in disclosure. BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court, 143 Cal. App. 4th 742, 755 (2006); see also Pasadena Police Officers Association v. Superior Court, 240 Cal. App. 4th 268, 292 (2015) (report commissioned by Pasadena PD in connection with an officer-involved shooting was not exempt from disclosure under Penal Code provision relating to police personal records, even though, theoretically, it could be used to make personnel decisions at some point in the future).

Given this particular report relates to the potential misappropriation of public tax dollars, it would seem that the public interest in disclosure would far outweigh the public interest in nondisclosure.  And finally, to the extent there is any information in the report that is exempt from disclosure, the agency has the duty to redact that information while releasing the rest of the report.  Gov’t Code § 6253(a).

You might want to write back to State Parks letting it know that the personnel exemption does not seem to apply to the records that you seek, and if the agency continues to maintain that it does, that it explain exactly what constitutes “personnel, medial or similar files” that would be exempt under the statute.  You might also remind the agency that should you be forced to resort to litigation in order to enforce your rights under the Act, a court would “award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed pursuant to this section.”  Gov’t Code § 6259(d).

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 unless separately retained.