Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Washington DOC Pays Pro Se Prisoner $110,043 For Illegally Withholding Records

Washington DOC Pays Pro Se Prisoner $110,043 For Illegally Withholding Records

The Washington State Department of Corrections (WDOC) will pay former Airway Heights Corrections Center prisoner Derek E. Gronquist $110,043 for mishandling his requests for public records. This represents the largest payout the WDOC has ever paid to a prisoner who represented himself.

The dispute began when Gronquist submitted a request to inspect public records to the Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC) on October 21, 2001. The WDOC denied the request pursuant to Policy 280.510(III)(F), which prohibits incarcerated prisoners from inspecting any public record not contained within their own Central or Health Care Files. On August 29, 2003, the Spokane County Superior Court held that Policy 280.510(III)(F)’s “incarcerated offender” exclusion violated the Public Records Act’s requirement of free and open inspection of public records. WDOC was ordered to disclose all requested records and to pay Gronquist $2,543 in penalties and costs.

(PLN readers should note that Division Three of the Washington State Court of Appeals has since ruled to the contrary. See Sappenfield v. Department of Corrections, 127 Wn.App. 83, 110 P.3d 808 (2005), review denied, 156 Wn.2d 1013 (2006)).

The WDOC subsequently disclosed records where the names of prisoners had been blacked out under a claim of exemption under Washington Administrative Code 137-08-150, and claimed to have made a full and complete disclosure. WDOC then subjected Gronquist’s monetary award to a 35% seizure for cost of incarceration, crime victim’s fund, and savings pursuant to House Bill 1571 and the newly amended RCW 72.09.480(3). A lawsuit was later filed in Thurston County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of HB 1571.

Approximately three years later, Gronquist discovered the existence of at least one record that the WDOC neither disclosed nor claimed to be exempt; a grievance filed by AHCC prisoner Todd Wixon. On October 4, 2006, Gronquist filed a Motion for Contempt and/or to Compel Public Disclosure alleging that the WDOC had silently withheld requested inmate grievance records and had improperly subject other records to redaction. The Court ordered the WDOC to “conduct a thorough and complete search for all records responsive to Plaintiff’s public disclosure request”, “to produce . . . all records responsive . . . without any redaction”, and to “[p]ay Plaintiff $50.00 a day [from August 29, 2003] . . . until the Defendant demonstrates to the Court’s satisfaction that a thorough and complete search for all responsive documents has been made and that all responsive and un-redacted records have been disclosed to Plaintiff.”

On May 11, 2007, the WDOC filed a Motion for Entry of Judgment arguing that the Public Records Act “does not require the grievance coordinator to hand search 2793 grievances filed at AHCC in 2001 to determine if there might be another document responsive to this part of Plaintiff’s request.” The Court denied WDOC’s motion, increased the penalty to $100 a day, and ordered the WDOC to “conduct a hand search of and/or for grievance records responsive to Plaintiff’s public disclosure request . . .” Reconsideration of the penalty assessment was denied. After conducting its search, the WDOC disclosed three previously withheld responsive grievances.

On July 26, 2007, the WDOC filed a second Motion for Entry of Judgment, arguing that it had fully complied with the Court’s orders. Within this filing, the WDOC disclosed for the first time that it had “disposed of” almost all grievance records filed between 1993 and 1999. WDOC’s motion was stayed pending discovery into the destruction of grievance records. On April 18, 2008, the WDOC agreed to settle this case for $79,000. It also agreed to pay Gronquist $1,000 to resolve litigation over the monies seized from the August 29, 2003, penalty award. See Gronquist v. Department of Corrections, Spokane County Superior Court No. 02-2-05518-9; and Gronquist v. Barshaw, Thurston County Superior Court No. 05-2-01941-4.

A second lawsuit was filed over WDOC’s mishandling of a separate records request submitted to AHCC on December 28, 2005, seeking employment and misconduct records concerning AHCC Correctional Officer, Jeffrey Ward. Within five weeks of receiving this Public Records Act request, WDOC began destroying its grievance records. After all grievance records filed between 1993 and 1999 had been destroyed, WDOC asserted that it would begin searching for responsive records. The WDOC then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment claiming full compliance with the Public Records Act. After WDOC’s motion was denied, it agreed to settle this case for $27,500. As part of the agreement Gronquist agreed not to pursue two other unrelated cases upon appeal. See: Gronquist v. Department of Corrections, Spokane County Superior Court Case No. 07-2-00562-0.

Commenting upon this litigation, WDOC Secretary Eldon Vail stated “clearly how we respond to public disclosure requests needed some attention and we’ve made a lot of changes since then to be better stewards of the taxpayer’s money in these kinds of cases.”
For an agency with a history of never admitting fault, Vail’s comments may sound a shift in how the WDOC responds to Public Records Act requests in the future. Gronquist is skeptical that WDOC’s practices will change, believing that “these cases demonstrate the lengths that DOC and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office will go to withhold records of governmental misconduct from public knowledge.” In Washington State it is a Class B felony punishable up to ten years in prison and a $20,000 fine to destroy public records following a citizen’s request for those records. Nevertheless, no WDOC official has ever been charged with a crime or subject to any discipline for unlawfully destroying the grievance records in these cases. Mr. Gronquist represented himself in each of these cases. The state’s response was predictable: it obtained legislation to allow state agencies to seek injunctions against prisoners who file public records requests.

[Editor’s Note: Gronquist has been a long time PLN subscriber. During the course of the above litigation he contacted PLN and asked for assistance locating counsel to represent him in the above cases. Despite our best efforts we were unable to find an attorney in Washington to take the cases. The moral to this story is just because a lawyer won’t take a case does not mean it lacks merit. With counsel the payout in fees alone would have been much higher. PW]

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal cases

Gronquist v. Department of Corrections

Extensive documents from this case are available in the briefbank.

Gronquist v. Department of Corrections

Gronquist v. Barshaw