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A&A: How do I enforce my right under the CPRA to inspect records?

Q: I have submitted via fax a Public Records Act Request to a California healthcare district hospital that is a local government entity. The district responded to one request on the PRA but not to the request to inspect the Department of Respiratory Therapy Policy and Procedures Manual. (The title of the manual was found in a Board of Directors meeting agenda. ) Over ten days have elapsed with no response to this request and no response to a follow-up request. The district did not request an extension.

For various reasons I believe it is possible that the healthcare district may be non-responsive and require that I go to court. To obtain the document what steps would be appropriate at this time to lay the groundwork for going to court? I have reviewed the California Public Records Act Compliance Manual for Special Districts that states the inspection can be done at a “mutually agreeable time” with staff monitoring and proof of identity of the requestor. The Manual also states that if a document exists it should be made available “promptly.”

A:   If I am understanding your inquiry correctly, you are not requesting a copy of the manual in its entirety, but rather are asking the healthcare district to provide you with access to the manual so you may inspect it in person (presumptively at the district offices).

Under the PRA, there are technically two ways the public may obtain access to records held by a public agency.  One is to request copies of records.  When copies are requested, the district has 10 days to respond, and after that must provide those copies promptly.  Gov’t Code § 6253(b).

The second method is to request to inspect records in person by invoking Government Code § 6253(a), which provides, “[p]ublic records are open to 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.”  Thus, any member of the public should presumptively be able to walk into an agency’s office during regular hours and be given access to public records upon request.

The PRA Compliance Manual for Special Districts that you have found online would not trump what is required under law in this regard; in the end, the PRA statute itself would govern your access to the manual.  Given the hospital district almost certainly has the procedures manual on hand at its office, you should be able to walk in and request to see it.  Your written request to inspect the manual was merely a courtesy on your part that allowed the hospital district to make arrangements for you to come in at a time that is convenient for district staff.

You might want to simply plan to visit the district offices at your own convenience, and ask to see the manual at the service counter.  If you are met with any resistance, you can invoke § 6253(a).  You can further let the district know that should you be forced to bring a lawsuit to enforce your rights under the PRA, it would have to pay your attorneys’ fees.

Government Code Section 6259 allows you to file a lawsuit to enforce your rights under the PRA. Lawsuits are usually initiated by a verified petition (i.e. a request filed under oath) that asks the court to issue a “writ of mandate.” A writ of mandate is a type of order directing the public agency to take specified actions. The lawsuit may be filed in the superior court of the county of the agency that is the holder of the records. Lawsuit against state agencies may be brought in Sacramento County or in any city in which the California attorney general has an office. Code of Civil Procedure section 401(1).

If you ultimately feel judicial enforcement is necessary, I recommend keeping a record of your efforts in accessing the hospital records and consulting an attorney.  If you do not have or believe you can afford an attorney, you may be able to locate an attorney through a legal referral service.  Most counties have local bar associations that operate legal referral services.  You might also want to peruse the FAC’s page that lists lawyers who have assisted the FAC in various capacities over the years..  This list includes attorneys who practice solo, in boutique firms, and at large firms (such as our firm here).

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.

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