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Ordinary Discovery Rules Apply to Washington PRA Actions; FOIA Reasonableness Standard Governs PRA Searches

The en banc Washington State Supreme Court held that discovery in cases under the Public Records Act (PRA) is the same as in any other civil action.
The Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County (the Alliance), filed PRA requests with the Spokane County Building and Planning Department (BPD), for records that would expose illegal hiring practices. When the BPD failed to produce requested documents, the Alliance filed suit.

"Discovery issues immediately erupted" as the County repeatedly resisted the Alliance's discovery requests. The trial court limited the scope of Alliance's discovery requests and ultimately granted summary judgment to the County, finding no evidence that responsive documents existed.

The Alliance appealed, arguing that the County did not conduct adequate searches for the requested records. It also argued that the trial court erred in limiting the scope of discovery. "Analogizing to (the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), where discovery is typically not allowed, the Court of Appeals found the Alliance's discovery requests overreaching, and held the trial court did not abuse its discretion."

The Washington Supreme Court reversed, holding "that the civil rules control discovery in a PRA action." The court concluded that "the PRA and FOIA are not analogous regarding discovery, because the PRA includes a statutory penalty provision, while FOIA does not. The rules of discovery provide that all relevant information likely to lead to admissible evidence is discoverable. What is relevant in a PRA action will differ from that in a FOIA action, because a PRA action will often involve issues not implicated by FOIA actions."
"Since discovery was not allowed to proceed," the Court found that "the record is incomplete." Holding that "more expansive discovery will likely lead to information or records relevant to the PRA requests made in this case," the Court remanded "to the trial court for appropriate discovery."

Addressing the issue for the first time, the Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the test for determining the adequacy of a search under the PRA "is the same as exists under FOIA." That is, "the focus of the inquiry is not whether responsive documents do in fact exist, but whether the search itself was adequate." The Court explained that "the search must be reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents" and "agencies are required to make more than a perfunctory search and to follow obvious leads as they are uncovered." Whether a search is reasonable "will depend of the facts of each case." The Court concluded that the County's search was inadequate under this test.

Finally, the Court repeated that "a party prevailing against an agency in a PRA action may be awarded costs and attorney fees, and may be awarded daily penalties at the discretion of the trial court. RCW 42.56.550(4)." It rejected the Court of Appeals' conclusion that a party must establish causation to prevail. Rather, "once a trial court finds an agency violated the PRA, daily penalties are mandatory, but the amount is subject to the trial court's discretion." As such, the Court remanded "to the trial court for a determination of costs, attorney fees, and daily penalties, following any necessary discovery." See: Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County v. County of Spokane, 172 Wash.2d 702, 261 P.3d 119 (Wa. 2011)(en banc).

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Related legal case

Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County v. County of Spokane