Appeal from Thurston Superior Court. Docket No: 11-2-02725-0. Judge signing: Honorable Lisa L Sutton. Judgment or order under review. Date filed: 11/09/2012.
Christopher W. Bawn, for appellant.
Robert W. Ferguson, Attorney General, and Jean M. Wilkinson and Linda Anne Dalton, Managing Assistants, for respondent.
Authored by Linda CJ Lee. Concurring: J. Robin Hunt, Bradley A. Maxa.
[183 Wn.App. 928] Lee,
¶ 1 Mike Hobbs appeals the superior court's order dismissing his Public Records Act (PRA) claim against the State Auditor's Office (Auditor). Hobbs argues that the superior court erred in concluding that the Auditor cannot be liable for potential errors while a PRA request is [183 Wn.App. 929] still pending, the Auditor's initial response letter was adequate, and the scope of the Auditor's search was reasonable. Because we hold the superior court did not err, we affirm.
¶ 2 On November 28, 2011, attorney Christopher W. Bawn filed a PRA request to the Auditor on behalf of his client Mike Hobbs. The request was for public records related to the Auditor's investigation of a whistleblower complaint regarding the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and the use of " SSI Dedicated Accounts" for foster children. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 105. The request included a large amount of technical information related to the records and record retention. Mary Leider, the Auditor's public records officer, received the request.
A. Auditor's Response to Hobbs' Request
¶ 3 On December 2, 2011, Leider sent Hobbs a response letter stating, " As we understand the subject matter of your request, you are requesting all records related to investigations of DSHS that pertain specifically to SSI Dedicated Accounts." CP at 108. The letter informed Hobbs that the records would be provided in installments and that the Auditor expected the first installment to be available for inspection, by
appointment, anytime after December 16. The letter also stated that DSHS client records would be sent first to DSHS to ensure all the appropriate redactions were made to protect the foster children's privacy.
¶ 4 Leider was unable to contact Hobbs' attorney by phone or e-mail to arrange for the inspection of documents; so on December 21, the Auditor made the first installment [183 Wn.App. 930] of records available to Hobbs electronically. As discussed in more detail below, Hobbs responded to this first installment by filing suit against the Auditor for alleged PRA violations.
¶ 5 On December 30, the Auditor provided Hobbs with a new copy of the documents, using code numbers the Auditor created to correspond to explanations of the redactions. Leider also informed Hobbs that the next installment of records would be ready on January 13, 2012.
¶ 6 On January 6, 2012, the Auditor's counsel sent Hobbs a letter confirming his requested prioritization of his three pending records requests (two of which are not the subject of this appeal) and stating,
In our conversation, I requested that you contact me if you believe the Auditor has made a mistake in processing your public records requests. The Auditor wants to hear from you if you think there are problems, so the Auditor may address your concerns promptly if it is possible to do so. This request for cooperation from you pertains to any concerns you may have about redactions, validity or explanation of claimed exemptions, or other concerns. For example, you mentioned that the Auditor's public records officer provided you with an updated version of the first installment of its response to your November 28, 2011 request, and that this update was provided promptly. This approach avoids unnecessary use of the court's time and resources.
CP at 121-22. Also on January 6, Leider sent Hobbs an e-mail informing him that the final installment of records would be ready on February 13.
¶ 7 On January 19, Leider contacted Hobbs to inform him of some technical issues that had arisen in providing e-mails containing metadata. After consulting with Pete Donnell, audit manager for the statewide technology audit team, the Auditor developed a method to provide the [183 Wn.App. 931] documents in the format that Hobbs had requested. Leider informed Hobbs that she would prepare five e-mails, send them to Hobbs to confirm they were in an acceptable format, and then process the remaining 88 e-mails. After confirming the e-mails were in a format acceptable to Hobbs, Leider told Hobbs the remaining 88 e-mails would be ready on March 1.
¶ 8 On February 13, Leider sent Hobbs the first 1,010 pages of the foster child records redacted by DSHS. On February 14, Leider provided Hobbs with another updated copy of the December 30, 2011 production addressing additional concerns Hobbs' attorney had raised. On February 16, Leider provided the remaining 1,010 pages of foster child records redacted by DSHS. On February 17, Leider sent Hobbs an e-mail stating that she had identified technical issues with some of the files and sent Hobbs another copy of the DSHS records with corrections to resolve the technical issues.
¶ 9 On February 27, Leider sent Hobbs another e-mail stating that she had reviewed a declaration he had submitted to the court complaining about technical issues involving the metadata of the 17 different versions of the Auditor's whistleblower investigation closure letter. Leider stated that she had consulted with Donnell, corrected the problem, and was providing new versions of the letter with the metadata issues resolved.
¶ 10 On March 1, Leider provided Hobbs with the additional e-mails that Leider had contacted Hobbs about on January 19. She also sent Hobbs an e-mail stating that the Auditor believed it had provided all the responsive documents to Hobbs' public records request, and that Hobbs should contact her with any concerns he may have.
¶ 11 On March 29, Leider sent Hobbs an e-mail in which she noted that Hobbs had not downloaded the final installment of the records from March 1 and that the link to the " Secure File Transfer System" had expired. CP at 302. She [183 Wn.App. 932] notified Hobbs that she was reposting a new transfer ...