The Broad Scope of the California Public Records Act: Caldecott v. Superior Court Affirms that Courts Interpret the Act to Favor Disclosure

AnotherGavel.jpgThis post was authored byLiara Silva and Alysha Stein-Manes

Last month, the California Court of Appeal issued a decision in Caldecott v. Superior Court (2015), finding that the Newport-Mesa Unified School District (District) was obligated under the California Public Records Act (PRA) to release certain documents related to an employees hostile work environment claim where the documents were also related to other claims made against the Districts superintendent.

While employed as the Districts Executive Director of Human Resources, John Caldecott (Caldecott) filed a complaint against the Districts superintendent, Fred Navarro (Navarro). The complaint alleged that Navarro: (1) created a hostile work environment for three of his cabinet members; (2) improperly approved and reported compensation for an administrator that may have inflated the administrators retirement compensation; (3) recommended pay increases using improper criteria; (4) incorrectly reported income used to calculate retirement compensation; (5) approved improper salaries for new employees; and (6) failed to audit the retirement agencys reporting practices.

The District authorized an investigation into Caldecotts claims, but Caldecott claimed that no investigation was ever conducted. The Districts board sent Caldecott a written statement, which allegedly said, Caldecotts complaint regarding . . . Navarro does not warrant any action by the Board beyond this response. Navarro terminated Caldecott without cause six weeks later, which Caldecott alleged was in retaliation for his complaint. Caldecott then made a request pursuant to the PRA for copies of the Districts response to his complaint as well as an email he sent to the Districts board regarding the response.

The District denied the PRA request and Caldecott filed a petition for writ of mandate and complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, requesting that the court order the disclosure of the requested documents. The trial court ruled that Caldecotts request was moot because he already possessed the documents. In addition, it found that because the documents were connected to his hostile work environment claim, the documents were exempt from disclosure under Government Code section 6254, subdivision (c), which exempts certain personnel records from disclosure. Caldecott appealed.

Building upon prior court decisions, the appellate court (Court) held that the public interest in disclosure outweighed any privacy interests in nondisclosure and ordered production of the documents, subject to certain redactions and non-disclosure pursuant to attorney-client privilege.

First, the Court found that the fact that Caldecott already had the documents in his possession was irrelevant under the PRA. Caldecott sought the documents in order to publish them without fear of liability for doing so. The Court explained that a requesters motive and purpose for seeking public records is irrelevant; rather, whether records require disclosure is a question of whether the disclosure serves a public purpose.

The Court rejected the Districts arguments that the documents were exempt from disclosure under Government Code sections 6254, subdivision (c) (pertaining to personnel files) and 6255, subdivision (a) (pertaining to the deliberative process) for the following reasons:

Government Code section 6254, subdivision (c) exempts from disclosure [p]ersonnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. For the exemption to apply, courts first determine whether the disclosure would compromise substantial privacy interests. If privacy interests are implicated, courts then determine whether the potential harm to the privacy interests outweigh the public interest in disclosure. In making this second determination, courts consider the extent to which disclosure . . . will shed light on the public agencys performance of its duty. (Caldecott) The Court found that there is a strong public interest in judging how Navarro responded to Caldecotts claims. The Court emphasized that this was particularly true in light of his decision to almost immediately terminate Caldecott without cause following his complaint. Further, the Court stated that there is a strong public interest in assessing how the Districts board treated the serious allegations of misconduct against its highest-ranking administrator. Thus, disclosure of the documents would shed light on the Districts performance of its duties.Government Code section 6255, subdivision (a), has been interpreted to exempt from production documents which would disclose the mental processes by which a given decision was reached and the substance of conversations, discussions, debates, deliberations and like materials reflecting advice, opinions and recommendations by which government policy is processed. (Caldecott) The District argued that producing the requested documents would impede open discussions and debates between high-level District officials about the merits of District programs. The Court explained, however, that this deliberative process privilege is a qualified, limited privilege and found no evidence that the Districts response to Caldecotts complaint contained the substance of actual discussions or debate, information showing how government policy was formed, or any evidence that production would interfere with discussions or debate.

Likewise, the Court ruled that the official information privilege under the Evidence Code did not apply.

The Court also found that although one of Caldecotts claims concerned a hostile work environment, such a claim did not necessarily make it a personnel matter exempt from disclosure. The Court emphasized that Caldecott was not concerned that the matter be kept private. Further, although some of the documents Caldecott requested pertained to his hostile work environment claim, they also pertained to his other allegations for which the exemption did not apply.

Finally, the Court explained that in assessing the public interest in disclosure of an employees alleged wrongdoing, courts are required to independently review documents to determine whether they reveal sufficient indicia of reliability to support a reasonable conclusion that a complaint was well founded. The PRA does not require that an agency impose discipline or that allegations be sustained in order to release complaints to the public. Furthermore, where the alleged wrongdoing is performed by a high-ranking public official such as Navarro, courts may use an even lesser standard of reliability. Here, the Court was unable to conclude that the allegations against Navarro and the District were so unreliable that they could not be anything but false. Thus, the Court remanded the matter back to the trial court and ordered that it review the documents and direct the District to produce the documents, redacted as needed to protect third-party privacy rights. The Court also exempted from production those documents determined by the trial court to be subject to the attorney-client privilege.

The Caldecott decision should serve as a reminder that the PRA strongly favors the disclosure of public records. Courts will narrowly interpret exemptions such as those pertaining to protecting personnel files, the deliberative process and official information. Courts will determine whether a public agency relying on these exemptions has met its burden of establishing that the publics interest in non-disclosure outweighs disclosure.

Agencies should also be aware that the PRA mandates that a court order the award of costs and attorney fees to a plaintiff when that court orders the production of documents pursuant to the PRA. Such costs and attorney fees, of course, can be significant.

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