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A California appellate court ruled last week that a surrogate for a party to a pending lawsuit against a public entity may obtain documents under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) relating to the attorney fees charged by litigation counsel for the public entity.
The court concluded that the CPRA "does not allow limitations on access to a public record based upon the purpose for which the record is being requested, if the record is otherwise subject to disclosure." Therefore, the mere fact that an attorney may be seeking public records to assist her colleagues in connection with a pending action was irrelevant.
Cynthia Anderson-Barker is an attorney. She works in the same office as attorneys David Mann and Donald Cook, who are her attorneys of record in this CPRA action. Mann and Cook also represent plaintiffs in a civil rights action that has been pending in the Los Angeles County Superior Court since 1999 -- Venegas v. County of Los Angeles.
The Venegas case has been the subject of numerous appellate proceedings. In October 2011, after the most recent appellate decision, the case was returned to the trial court for trial. One month later, Anderson-Barker filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court, seeking disclosure under the CPRA of certain records relating to the Venegas action, records that the County had refused to disclose in response to a formal CPRA request. Specifically, Anderson-Barker sought (1) all invoices or other requests for payment submitted to the County by any law firm representing it in the Venegas action, (2) each such law firm's time records for the Venegas action, and (3) canceled checks and other writings reflecting payment by the County to such law firms.
The County maintained that the documents in question were not subject disclosure.
Under the CPRA, every person has a right to inspect any public record for any purpose, subject to certain exemptions. The County is a local agency under the CPRA, and there is no dispute that the records at issue in this writ proceeding qualified as public records.
By case law, the CPRA is broadly construed. Exemptions, however, are narrowly construed.
The CPRA contains a number of exemptions, including one which excepts from disclosure records "pertaining to pending litigation to which the public agency is a party ... until the pending litigation ... has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled."
Though a public entity may refuse to disclose documents which it prepares for use in litigation, the court found that the records in question were not prepared for use in litigation. While the records related to pending litigation -- and would not have existed but for the pending litigation -- they were still fair game under the CPRA.