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Washington PRA Violations Result in Costs and Penalties

The Washington Court of Appeals, Division Two, held on July 30, 2013 that a state agency violated Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA) by failing to respond to a prisoner’s request within the statutory time limit and by redacting information not exempt from disclosure. The appellate court instructed the lower court to determine on remand the amount of costs and penalties to be awarded as a result of the violations.

On July 20, 2009, Monroe Correctional Complex prisoner Derek E. Gronquist sent a PRA request to the Washington State Department of Licensing (DOL) for the master business license application of a specified company.

The DOL failed to respond within five days in violation of the PRA. When the agency responded to Gronquist’s request on July 31, 2009, it provided the requested document but “redacted much of the application without providing a statutory basis for the redactions.”

Gronquist filed suit in state court, alleging that the DOL had violated the PRA by providing a redacted copy of the application. Following an inspection of the redacted information, the trial court granted summary judgment to the DOL, holding that the redacted material was not subject to disclosure but protected as confidential under Washington law.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that: 1) the DOL did not respond within the statutory time frame; 2) none of the redacted information was exempt when it was requested; 3) the DOL failed to provide timely or adequate justification for the redactions; and 4) the trial court improperly refused to file the deposition transcripts offered by Gronquist in support of his motion for sanctions and in response to the DOL’s summary judgment motion.

Due to a 2011 change that transferred the responsibility for master business licenses from the DOL to another state agency, the appellate court declined to order disclosure of the unredacted application requested by Gronquist. It remanded, however, instructing “the trial court to consider the imposition of costs and penalties after consideration of the entire record, including the depositions to be filed by the trial court.” Gronquist was also awarded his costs on appeal.

The Court of Appeals did not address the applicability of RCW § 42.56.565(1), effective July 22, 2011, which specifies that a court shall not award penalties for violations of the PRA “to a person who was serving a criminal sentence in a state, local, or privately operated correctional facility on the date the request for public records was made, unless the court finds that the agency acted in bad faith in denying the person the opportunity to inspect or copy a public record.” See: Gronquist v. Washington State Department of Licensing, 175 Wn. App. 729, 309 P.3d 538 (Wash. Ct. App. 2013).

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