Frivolous Public Records Act Lawsuits May Entitle District to Attorneys’ Fees

Recently the Third District Court of Appeal decided Crews v. Willows Unified School District, concerning a newspaperman’s appeal from an award of sanctions against him in the form of the school district’s attorneys’ fees for his filing a frivolous California Public Records Act lawsuit against the District.  Although the decision of the Court of Appeal reversed an award of sanctions against the individual, the decision could have implications on whether and to what extent frivolous attorneys’ fees awards will be upheld to sanction bad faith CPRA lawsuits.  We prepared an amicus brief on behalf of the California School Boards Association in support of Willows Unified.

On March 5, 2009, Crews made a CPRA request for all of the superintendent’s emails for the entire preceding year.  In all, the requested documents encompassed approximately 60,000 emails, or about 14 file boxes of paper documents.  The District responded within the statutory timeframe that the request required additional time to review each document to determine if they could be produced or were exempt from disclosure.  In order to reduce the amount of documents identified, the District requested that Crews clarify his request, but Crews refused.

On April 28, 2009, the very same day the District estimated it would begin producing responsive documents, Crews filed his petition for writ of mandate to force the District to produce the documents.  Despite receiving the initial batch of documents from the District on April 29, 2009, Crews proceeded by serving his lawsuit on May 5, 2009.  Over the subsequent seven months, the District continued to produce non-exempt documents.  The ensuing litigation resulted in the District incurring tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and expending over 198 hours of administrator time in responding to the voluminous request.

In determining whether a petitioner is prevailing party in a CPRA lawsuit, entitling the petitioner to reasonable attorney fees and costs, a court must find that the litigation caused the public entity to release a previously withheld document.  [Galbiso v. Orosi Public Utility Dist. (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 1063, 1088.]  A petitioner is considered a “prevailing party” if his suit motivated defendants to provide the primary relief sought or activated them to modify their behavior, or if litigation substantially contributed to the process which eventually achieved the desired result. [Belth v. Garamendi (1991) 232 Cal.App.3d 896, 901-902.]

If, on the other hand, a court finds a petitioner’s case is clearly frivolous, it must award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the public agency.  [Govt. Code § 6259(d).]  In Butt v. City of Richmond (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 925, a case very similar to Crews, the petitioner made a CPRA request to the City of Richmond and then filed a petition to force disclosure, even before the City could respond within the CPRA’s 10 day time period.  While litigation proceeded, the City provided all records deemed disclosable under the CPRA and made extraordinary efforts to accommodate Butt’s specific requests.  The court denied Butt’s petition because he failed to give the City 10 days to initially respond to his request, and also awarded the City’s attorneys’ fees costs against him for filing the frivolous lawsuit.

The trial court in Crews found that the District properly withheld 3,200 pages of documents subject to legal exemptions, and that only 91 pages of attachments to emails were inadvertently left out of the District’s production.  Crews claimed that he should still be found to be the prevailing party, entitling him to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, arguing that the District produced thousands of pages of documents only after he filed his lawsuit.  However, the court held that Crews’ frivolously pursued his lawsuit and that the documents produced by the District would have been produced without the lawsuit, thereby warranting sanctions against him for $56,595 in attorney fees and costs.

The Court of Appeal considered whether Crews was a “prevailing party” in the trial court — an argument Crews made on appeal — and if not whether the attorneys’ fees award should be upheld.  The Court concluded Crews was not a prevailing party, as he received every document he was entitled to and his lawsuit did not prompt the disclosure.  However, the Court concluded that Crew’s “failure to prevail . . . does not mean his case was utterly devoid of merit or brought solely to harass.”  Even though the suit was filed the same day Crews was promised and he received some of the documents, and he served the lawsuit after he started receiving documents, the Court noted there was “potential” that the trial court’s review of documents that were exempt from disclosure would result in “Crews being “entitled to at least some withheld documents.”

At a time when school districts are already having trouble affording the expense of responding to legitimate CPRA requests, the ability to defend against frivolous and unnecessary lawsuits is of paramount concern.  With limited budgets, districts cannot be expected to also foot the bill for defending against frivolous lawsuits.  If the Court of Appeal had upheld the award of sanctions in the Crews’ case, school districts would have had further judicial support in defending themselves against these types of frivolous CPRA lawsuits.  Crews was decided on its unique fact, though, and it does not preclude the award of sanctions in other scenarios where — like in Crews — the lawsuit is not the triggering factor in disclosure and the requestor receives every document to which he is entitled.

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