A prisoner who was also editor of the Prison Legal News (PLN) made seven requests for information from the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) under the state's public disclosure act (PDA). The requests, generally, sought records pertaining to medical misconduct investigations by the DOC of its medical staff, disciplinary and arrest records of DOC medical staff, and records of prisoner deaths and assaults requiring medical treatment. DOC responded to the requests, but not within the time frame PLN believed was applicable under the PDA nor as completely as PLN believed was required, for the DOC withheld or redacted certain documents and information. After PLN sought unsuccessfully to get DOC to reverse its decisions redacting or withholding certain information, PLN filed suit against the DOC in Thurston County (WA) Superior Court on May 11, 2001. PLN was represented by private counsel. PLN alleged that DOC did not respond to PLN in a reasonable time and that various PDA exceptions claimed by DOC did not apply.
The trial court, in an unpublished ruling by Judge William Thomas McPhee, held that DOC did not violate the PDA and that the time taken to respond to PLN's requests was reasonable. The court required DOC to produce a log specifying which exemption had been claimed for each undisclosed document or redaction. The court also stated that a second hearing could be requested if PLN and DOC could not negotiate the amount of specificity required regarding which exemption applied to each nondisclosure or redaction. PLN did not request a second hearing.
PLN appealed to the Court of Appeals of Washington. In an unpublished opinion of October 14, 2003, written by Judge David Armstrong, the appellate court upheld the trial court determination that the time in which DOC responded was reasonable. It also upheld DOC's redactions of names and identifying information of patients, witnesses, investigators, accusers, and the accused, pertaining to disciplinary matters, as well as related redactions pertaining to patient health care. But the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on DOC's withholding of preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and opinions. The Court of Appeals ordered its commissioner to award attorney fees and costs incurred to obtain the latter documents but did not order that the statutory penalty be imposed.
PLN petitioned the Supreme Court of Washington, but only on the application of certain PDA exemptions and the failure of the Court of Appeals to award a statutory penalty. The state did not cross-petition the determination that it had wrongfully withheld preliminary drafts and notes. The state's Supreme Court granted review on July 7, 2004. In addition to briefs filed by the parties, numerous amicus curiae briefs were filed, including those by the ACLU, the Coalition for Open Government, the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Pro-Family Advocates of Washington, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, Inc., as well as by a Washington state prisoner (who previously had been treated unprofessionally by DOC medical staff) represented by Columbia Legal Services Institutions Project.
On July 14, 2005, the en banc Washington Supreme Court issued its' opinion, written by Justice Richard B. Sanders. The opinion reversed the appellate court, ruling that the identifying information withheld was not a part of law enforcement records compiled for law enforcement purposes. Under precedent, the law enforcement exemption, like all exemptions under the PDA, would be narrowly construed and a party claiming an exemption from disclosing information has the burden of establishing the exemption's applicability. To the state's Supreme Court, the DOC had not carried that burden, in that providing medical care to prisoners and disciplining medical staff did not fall with common understandings of the term "law enforcement." Similarly, the exemption for non-disclosure of "health care information" required narrow application, so that on remand, if DOC continued to want to withhold information under this exemption, the DOC would be required to prove that each patient's health care information would be readily identifiable with that patient even if the patient's identity is not known because of the uncontested nondisclosure of patient names or identification numbers. The court also ruled that PLN, as the prevailing party, was entitled to its costs and reasonable attorney's fees. Finally, the court also ruled that the amount of a statutory penalty under the PDA would be a matter for the trial court to decide on remand, but that the PDA required imposition of a penalty. Prison Legal News, Inc. v. Department of Corrections, 115 P.2d 316 (Wash. 2005).
We have no further information about the case.Mike Fagan - 05/06/2008