FAC Fights Unprecedented Effort by School District to Recover Nearly $500K From Records Requester

The First Amendment Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday submitted a friend-of-court brief arguing that an effort by the Newark Unified School District to recover nearly half a million dollars in attorneys’ fees from a woman who requested public records under the California Public Records Act is legally meritless, unprecedented, and would cast an intolerable chill over the public’s ability to learn about their government.

Newark Unified has asked the Alameda County Superior Court in California to order Elizabeth Brazil to pay the school district $449, 317.60 for time the district’s attorneys spent litigating Brazil’s effort to obtain records under the California Public Records Act. If the school district were to prevail on this claim—which lacks any sound basis in California law—it would cause individuals and organizations like FAC that regularly seek public records to think twice about exercising their rights to learn about their government.

“A fee award of this magnitude would send a very clear message to all those who would have the temerity to enforce their rights under California law,” said FAC executive director David Snyder. “That message would be: Trying to learn about your government could lead to your financial ruin.”

In the case, Newark Unified School District v. Elizabeth Brazil, Case No. RG14738281, the school district contends that its lawyers’ effort to get an injunction requiring Brazil to return some records the school district mistakenly released years ago entitles it to recover attorneys’ fees as the “prevailing party” in the litigation. However, the CPRA does not permit the government to recover fees unless the records requester filed a lawsuit that is “clearly frivolous.”

Not only was Brazil’s legal position not frivolous, the school district does not even attempt to argue that it was.

The right to ask for public records—and to bring a lawsuit where the government does not comply—is protected not just by the CPRA itself but by the California Constitution, which holds that all Californians have a “right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”

“Asking a court to order someone who simply sought information about her school district to pay nearly half a million dollars is outrageous, deeply troubling, and—importantly—legally meritless,” Snyder said. “The law simply does not allow for this type of fee recovery.”

FAC and the ACLU are joined in the brief by Californians Aware, the California News Publishers Association, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Los Angeles Times and the McClatchy Company, which publishes the Sacramento Bee, among other publications. Read the full amicus brief here. For further information, contact:

David Snyder
Executive Director
First Amendment Coalition

Kelly Aviles
Law Offices of Kelly Aviles