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Washington State Prisoner Who Requested Public Records Entitled to Joinder in Non-Disclosure Injunctive Action

The Supreme Court for the State of Washington has held that a person who requests public records must be joined in an action that seeks to prevent the disclosure of those records.
The Court’s May 13, 2010 ruling came in an appeal filed by Washington State Penitentiary prisoner Allan Parmelee. In October 2004, Parmelee requested from the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) “photographs, addresses, incomes, retirement and disability information, administrative grievances or internal investigations, and any other related documents” pertaining to numerous prison employees.

Fifteen employees then filed suit against the WDOC seeking a protective order from disclosure of the records, based on a claim of privacy. After the trial court granted the employees an injunction, Parmelee filed a limited notice of appearance seeking to intervene, requesting that the trial court reconsider. His motion was denied and the appellate court affirmed. See: Burt v. Department of Correction, 141 Wn.App. 573, 170 P.3d 608 (Wash.App. Div. 3, 2007).

Parmelee petitioned to the state Supreme Court.

Washington’s Public Records Act “is a strongly worded mandate for broad disclosure of public records.” Persons named in a request for records or to whom the requested records specifically pertain may obtain an injunction to prevent disclosure if the “examination would clearly not be in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably damage any person.”

Parmelee challenged the failure to join him in the WDOC employees’ injunctive action. The core issue was whether he was an indispensible party to the action. Civil Rule 19, which pertains to mandatory joinder, provides a two-part inquiry.

The first determination is whether a party is needed for just adjudication, which requires establishing the party must be “so situated that the disposition of the action in his absence may ... as a practical matter impair or impede his ability to protect that interest.”

It was undisputed that as the requestor of the records, Parmelee had an interest in the subject of the injunctive action. The Supreme Court agreed that the proceedings were not adversarial because no party represented Parmelee’s position as the person who had requested the public records.

While the WDOC had an obligation to release the records absent an exception, it also wanted to protect its employees’ personal information and to prevent a workplace employee/employer conflict. In fact, the WDOC had filed a memorandum stating “it has no opposition to [the employees’ injunctive] action.”

As such, Parmelee should have been allowed to join the action seeking to prevent his records request, and the lower court’s failure to do so impaired or impeded his interest in the subject of that action. The matter was remanded to join Parmelee as a party and to allow him an opportunity to respond to the WDOC employees’ request for an injunction prohibiting the release of the requested records. See: Burt v. Washington State Dept. of Corrections, 168 Wash.2d 828, 231 P.3d 191 (Wash. 2010).

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Related legal cases

Burt v. Washington State Dept. of Corrections

Burt v. Department of Correction