Attorney Fees Not Exempt from Disclosure Under California Public Records Act

Attorney Fees Not Exempt from Disclosure Under California Public Records Act

The California Court of Appeal held on November 16, 2012, that billing and payment records reflecting the amount of money a government agency paid in attorney fees to defend against a pending civil rights action were not exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), Government Code § 6250 et seq., even if the information was sought by a person seeking to assist the plaintiff litigants.

Attorneys David Mann and Donald Cook represent the plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit that has been pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court since 1999. That suit, which arose out of the arrest and detention of a husband and wife by members of the county’s Task Force for Regional Autotheft Prevention, has been the subject of numerous appellate proceedings, including Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, 153 Cal. App. 4th 1230 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2007). Following an unpublished appellate decision in August 2011, the case was remanded to the lower court for trial on the sole remaining claim involving a violation of Civil Code § 52.1.

Attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker, a colleague of Mann and Cook, filed a public records request seeking documents pertaining to billings from and payments to any law firm representing the county in the Venegas litigation. After the county denied the CPRA request, Anderson-Barker, represented by Mann and Cook, filed a petition for a writ of mandate to compel disclosure of the records.

The county argued in response to the petition that, under the CPRA’s “pending litigation” exemption (Government Code § 6254(b)), as well as other exemptions, it was not required to produce the documents. The trial court ruled in favor of Anderson-Barker, though ordered redactions to remove attorney work product-related information from the requested billing and payment records.

The county then filed a writ petition in the Court of Appeal challenging the trial court’s decision. The appellate court noted that the CPRA, which is modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act, is broadly construed to further its purpose of providing the public with access to information in the possession of public agencies. Consistent with that purpose, exemptions to disclosure are narrowly construed.

While the statute exempts from disclosure records “pertaining to pending litigation,” courts have interpreted that phrase to only encompass documents primarily prepared “for use in litigation.” It does not matter, the Court of Appeal explained, that the requested records might (or might not) be available through civil litigation discovery procedures or that the real party in interest requesting the documents is a litigant in a pending case involving the government agency in possession of the records.

Because substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that “the records in question were not prepared for use in litigation as that term is explained in the appellate decisions,” the Court of Appeal denied the county’s petition for writ of mandate and assessed costs against the county. Los Angeles County sought review from the California Supreme Court and also requested that the appellate ruling be depublished; both requests were denied on February 20, 2013. See: County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, 211 Cal. App. 4th 57 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2012), review denied.

Prisoner litigants should keep in mind that public records requests can sometimes be used to supplement discovery options available under the rules of civil procedure.

(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)