WA Case Update: The Public Records Act: Violations, Exemptions and Per Page Penalties

From the desk of Smith Freed Eberhard: When does a public body or agency violate the Public Records Act? Are records produced from a Department of Labor and Industry investigation categorically exempt from the Act? When a violation is found, does a court have discretion to impose a per page penalty? Find out how the Washington Supreme Court answered these questions in this week’s case update.

Claims Pointer: In this 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held that the Public Records Act allowed the trial court to impose the penalty calculated on a per page basis, and, further, that the Department of Labor and Industry was not entitled to the investigative records exemption as it did not demonstrate that the records at issue were exempt from disclosure. This case provides a helpful overview of the Public Records Act and reveals the broad discretion given to the courts in imposing penalties where violations under the act are found. Furthermore, the practical impact from this decision is that public bodies or agencies subject to the PRA will likely be apprehensive to withhold records, particularly where they may face a large penalty.

Wade’s East Side Gun Shop, Inc., et al. v. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., et al., 89629-1, Supreme Court of the State of Washington (2016).

The Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) opened investigations into companies that employed workers at Wade’s Eastside Gun Shop (Wade’s) following a complaint of elevated levels of lead in the blood of two employees working on a remodel of Wade’s. Thereafter, the Seattle Times (Times) requested access to all L&I records on lead exposure at Wade’s. After six months, the request ended up in superior court. The trial court found that L&I failed to properly comply with Public Records Act (PRA) procedures. The court imposed a $502,827.40 penalty for the PRA violations based on the number of pages of public records L&I wrongfully withheld and L&I’s culpability during five separate time...

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