Q: I filed a public record request with three school districts. The documents requested would provide additional information and insight to aid a special education student with whom the districts are currently engaged in due-process hearings. I received an initial reply extending their reply for 15 days. In an effort of good faith, I did not protest the extension. Now I have received a second response, again extending their deadline for another month, past the date of the relevant hearing. This is not standard turnover for records, having filed with other districts on similar matters and I believe their extension to be intentional to deny access to public information that may benefit the student and her family at the hearing.
A: The California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) gives public agencies the option of extending the 10-day deadline in which to respond to a particular request by an additional 14 days in “unusual circumstances.” Gov’t Code § 6253(c). This provision provides that “unusual circumstances” means the following, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to the proper processing of the particular request:
(1) The need to search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments that are separate from the office processing the request.
(2) The need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records that are demanded in a single request.
(3) The need for consultation, which shall be conducted with all practicable speed, with another agency having substantial interest in the determination of the request or among two or more components of the agency having substantial subject matter interest therein.
(4) The need to compile data, to write programming language or a computer program, or to construct a computer report to extract data.”
Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
The statute goes on to provide that “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.” Gov’t Code § 6253(d).
You may want to write back to the school district reminding it of the deadlines set forth in the CPRA, and to ask for justification for the long extension.
If you believe an agency is improperly withholding records to which you are entitled, your recourse is to file a lawsuit. A lawsuit under the CPRA is initiated by submitting a verified petition to a court asking it to issue a writ of mandate directing the agency to release the requested records. Cal. Gov. Code § 6258 provides that “Any person may institute proceedings for injunctive or declarative relief or writ of mandate in any court of competent jurisdiction to enforce his or her right to inspect or to receive a copy of any public record or class of public records under this chapter.” If you are successful in proving a violation of the public records laws, the court will order the agency to release the records, and the agency will be liable for your court costs and attorney’s fees. Cal. Gov. Code § 6259(b), (d). However, if the court finds your suit is “clearly frivolous,” you will be responsible for the agency’s court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees in defending the lawsuit. Cal. Gov. Code § 6259(d). If you decide to resort to a lawsuit, you may be able to find an attorney on your county’s lawyer referral service webpage.
If you would like to reference additional information regarding CPRA requests, including a sample letter template, you can do so here.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.