In an important win for government transparency, a Santa Clara Superior Court judge has ruled that the city of Milpitas must release documents relating to allegations of serious misconduct by former city manager Tom Williams. The city originally withheld the documents based in part on a “reverse California Public Record Act” lawsuit filed by Williams more than a year ago.
Judge Sunil Kulkarni’s order ends Williams’ “reverse CPRA” lawsuit by vacating a temporary restraining order that has been in place for the past year. Williams obtained the order by rushing into court with his reverse CPRA claim before the public or the press had a chance to argue for the release of the documents.
FAC sued on June 2, 2017 to challenge Williams’ lawsuit and force Milpitas to release the records. The previous month, FAC had requested records relating to accusations of poor performance and misconduct by Williams, including allegations that he used a city credit card to pay personal legal bills. (Williams has denied these charges.)
Judge Kulkarni’s recent order is tentative, meaning the court could change it based on objections from the parties, who have 15 days to tell the court if they object. After that time, the order becomes final. Courts rarely change much of substance in tentative rulings.
“We are grateful these records will finally be released, but they should have been made public more than a year ago, when newspapers first asked for them under the CPRA,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “The fact that it took so long for this information to become public highlights the enormous problem posed by reverse CPRA lawsuits.”
Under a “reverse CPRA” action, any individual claiming to have an interest in government records sought by a CPRA request can preemptively seek to prevent the release of those records, sometimes before the person who originally requested the records has a chance to contest the “reverse CPRA” action.
Nothing in the California Public Records Act explicitly allows “reverse CPRA” lawsuits. Until 2012, FAC and many others maintained they were prohibited under the law. However, that year the California Court of Appeal decided that such lawsuits are permissible. As a result, journalists and others who request records under the CPRA increasingly find their efforts thwarted by third parties — often before the original requester of the records even has a chance to show up in court and argue for access.
FAC is represented in the Milpitas case by James Chadwick and Julie Bauman of the Sheppard Mullin law firm.
You can read Judge Kulkarni’s order here.
For more information contact:
First Amendment Coalition
Partner, Sheppard Mullin