Supreme Court Case Regarding Disclosure of Records Contained in Private Accounts

On March 2, 2017, the California Supreme Court, in City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (Smith),[1] held that “when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the conduct of public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA or Act).” This decision provides a definitive determination on this issue that will significantly impact public agencies.

Factual Background

In 2009, Ted Smith made a CPRA request to the City of San Jose (“City”), seeking 32 categories of public records involving specified persons and issues related to redevelopment efforts in downtown San Jose. Included in the request were requests for voicemails, emails, and text messages sent or received on private electronic devices used by the mayor, members of the city council, and their staffs. The City disclosed communications made using City telephone numbers and email accounts, but did not disclose communications made using the individuals’ personal accounts, taking the position that such items were not “public records” subject to the CPRA.

Smith filed a lawsuit for declaratory relief, arguing that the CPRA’s definition of “public records” encompasses all communications about official business, regardless of how they are created, communicated or stored. The City argued that messages communicated through personal accounts are not public records because they are not within the public entity’s custody or control.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Smith, ordering disclosure of the records sought. The Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate overturning the trial court’s order, and the Supreme Court granted review.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

After noting that the CPRA and California Constitution strike a careful balance between public access and personal privacy, the Court stated that the issue was narrow: “Are writings concerning the conduct of public business beyond CPRA’s reach merely because they were sent or received using a nongovernmental account?” The Court concluded the answer is no — employees’ communications relating to official agency business may be subject to the CPRA regardless of the account utilized in their preparation or transmission. Of course, applicable exemptions (e.g. privacy, the deliberative process privilege, and the statutory exemptions in Government Code §§ 6254 and 6255) continue to apply.

The Court explained that the CPRA’s definition of “public record,”[2] has four aspects: (1) it is “a writing, (2) with content relating to the conduct of the people’s business, which is (3) prepared by, or (4) owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency.”

  1. Writing

After setting forth the CPRA’s definition of “writing”[3] and noting that, at the time the CPRA was enacted writings were generally made on paper or another tangible medium, the Court explained that, today, electronic communication, such as email, text messaging, and other electronic platforms, permit writings to be prepared, exchanged and stored more quickly and easily.

  1. Relating to the Conduct of the People’s Business

Next, the Court explained that the second aspect of the definition of “public records” establishes a framework for distinguishing between work-related and purely private communications. Pursuant to the CPRA, the Court noted, to qualify as a public record, a writing must “contain [] information relating to the conduct of the people’s business.” Since the question of whether a writing is sufficiently related to public business is not always clear, the Court explained that resolution of the question, especially when writings are kept in personal accounts, would involve an examination of several factors, such as the content itself, the context in or the purpose for which it was written, the audience to whom the writing was directed, and whether the writing was prepared by an employee acting or purporting to act within the scope of his or her employment.

Although the content of specific records was not before the Court, it clarified that, “to qualify as a public record under the CPRA, at a minimum, a writing must relate in some substantive way to the conduct of the people’s business” noting that, although the standard is broad, it “is not so elastic as to include every piece of information the public may find interesting. Communications that are primarily personal, containing no more than incidental mentions of agency business, generally will not constitute public records.”

  1. Prepared by Any State or Local Agency

Third, the Court held that a writing is “prepared by” the agency even if the writing is prepared using the employee’s personal account.  In other words, a document can be a public record, even if it is solely on the employee’s own computer or phone.

  1. Owned, Use, or Retained by Any State or Local Agency

Fourth, citing section 6253(c) of the Government Code, the Court explained that an agency’s actual or constructive possession of records is relevant in determining whether it has an obligation to search for, collect, and disclose material requested. Nonetheless, the Court explained, “[i]t is a separate and more fundamental question whether a document located outside an agency’s walls, or servers, is sufficiently ‘owned, used, or retained’ by the agency so as to constitute a public record.”  The Court concluded that “documents otherwise meeting CPRA’s definition of ‘public records’ do not lose this status because they are located in an employee’s personal account.”[4] A writing retained by a public employee conducting agency business has been ‘retained by’ the agency within the meaning of section 6252, subdivision (e), even if the writing is retained in the employee’s personal account.”

The Court thus concluded that “a city employee’s communications related to the conduct of the public business do not cease to be public records just because they were sent or received using a personal account. Sound public policy supports this result.”

The Court did not wish to allow government officials to evade the CPRA by merely using a personal account. The Court noted that the “whole purpose” of the CPRA is to “ensure transparency in government activities. If public officials could evade the law simply by clicking into a different email account, or communicating through a personal device, sensitive information could routinely evade public scrutiny.”

Court’s Guidance for Conducting Searches

Although the legality of a specific kind of search was not before the Court, the Court provided guidance on how to strike the balance between privacy and disclosure. The Court, noting that agencies are required to disclose records they can locate “with reasonable effort,” first explained that “[r]easonable efforts do not require that agencies undertake extraordinarily extensive or intrusive searches.” Next, the Court explained that agencies can adopt their own procedures. Citing general principles that have emerged, the Court stated that, once an agency receives a CPRA request, it must communicate the scope of the information to the custodian of records. Where a request seeks records held in employees’ nongovernmental accounts, the Court explained that “an agency’s first step should be to communicate the request to the employees in question. The agency may then reasonably rely on these employees to search their own personal files, accounts, and devices for responsive material.”

The Court noted that federal courts applying FOIA have approved of employees conducting their own searches and segregating public records, as long as those employees have been properly trained on how to distinguish between the two. The Washington Supreme Court recently adopted a similar procedure under its public records law, requiring employees who withhold personal records from their employer to submit an affidavit with facts sufficient to demonstrate that the information sought is not a public record under the state’s public records act.  The Court agreed with Washington’s Supreme Court that the procedure, “when followed in good faith, strikes an appropriate balance, allowing a public agency to ‘fulfill its responsibility to search for and disclose public records without unnecessarily treading on the constitutional rights of its employees.’”

The Court also noted that “agencies can adopt policies that will reduce the likelihood of public records being held in employees’ private accounts,” such as requiring employees to use or copy their government accounts for all communications relating to public business, citing procedures that federal employees are required to follow to ensure compliance with analogous FOIA requests. Despite its suggestions, the Court expressly noted that it was not holding that any particular search method is required or adequate, but that it was offering suggestions to provide guidance on remand and to explain why privacy concerns do not require categorical exclusion of documents in personal accounts from the CPRA’s “public records” definition.

In conclusion, noting consistency with the legislative purpose of the CPRA and the constitutional requirement to interpret the CPRA broadly in favor of public access, the Court held that “a city employee’s writings about public business are not excluded from CPRA simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal account.”

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that writings relating to public business may be subject to disclosure under the CPRA, irrespective of whether such writings have been sent, received, or stored in an official’s or employee’s personal account. The Supreme Court provided agencies with some guidance as to how they could comply with requests for writings that may exist on an employee or elected official’s personal communication device or personal communication account.  It is imperative that you contact your agency’s legal advisor to ensure that you have proper policies and procedures in place to comply with the inevitable barrage of CPRA requests that are sure to follow the Supreme Court’s decision on this issue

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.

[1] Available at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S218066.PDF.

[2] Section 6252(e) of the California Government Code defines “public records” to include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”

[3] The CPRA defines a “writing” as “any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.” Cal. Gov’t Code § 6252(g).

[4] The Court cited the D.C. Circuit’s construction of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science and Technology Policy, 827 F.3d 145 (D.C. Cir. 2016). For a more detailed summary relating to this case, please see Client Alert Vol. 31, No. 13, authored by Martin J. Mayer and available at www.jones-mayer.com.





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