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Hoffman v. Kittitas County

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

July 24, 2018

RANDALL HOFFMAN, Appellant,
v.
KITTITAS COUNTY, a local agency and the KITTITAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, a local agency, Respondents.

          OPINION

          PENNELL, J.

         Trial courts have broad discretion to select appropriate penalties for violations of Washington's Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW. In limited cases, we will overturn a trial court's exercise of authority on appeal. But this is not one of them. After finding Kittitas County and the Kittitas County Sheriff's Office (collectively the County) violated the PRA, the trial court considered the relevant PRA penalty factors and, based on substantiated facts, selected a reasonable penalty assessment. Nothing more was required for a fair exercise of PRA penalty discretion. We therefore affirm.

         BACKGROUND

         Facts[1]

         Randall Hoffman submitted a public records request to the Kittitas County Sheriff's Office on June 29, 2015. The request sought police reports referencing an individual named Erin Schnebly. The request was received by Carolyn Hayes, the designated public records clerk for the sheriff's office. Hayes had 10 years of experience and training responding to PRA requests directed to the sheriff.

         Hayes conducted an initial search for records and identified seven incident reports. Her initial search did not locate photos or videos. A careful review would have revealed the existence of numerous photos and two videos responsive to the request.

         Hayes called Hoffman about his request. Hayes's primary concern was that her review did not show Hoffman had any involvement in the seven incidents. Hayes told Hoffman that because he was not involved in the incidents, she could not provide him the majority of the documents he requested. As the parties now agree, this information was incorrect. Based on Hayes's misinformation, Hoffman limited his request to face sheets of reports, which identified the type of incident, date, and location.

         Kallee Knudson, a records clerk who began training under Hayes in the sheriff's office earlier that June, overheard Hayes's phone call to Hoffman. She could hear what Hayes said but not what Hoffman said. Specifically, Knudson heard Hayes tell Hoffman she "would not be able to provide the majority of documents" per specific statutes. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 15-16, 459. Knudson had never noticed Hayes saying anything similar to this before, and it did not make sense to her.

         Knudson questioned Hayes about Hoffman's request. Hayes discussed a statute that she believed supported her position. She also added that Hoffman had agreed to limit his request to the face sheets.

         Hayes made the following notation on Hoffman's PRA request: "2009-2015 face sheet only." CP at 13. Hayes, relying on a statute that the parties now agree did not apply to the request, made significant and improper redactions to the face sheets. The next day, Hayes provided the redacted face sheets to Hoffman.

         In early September 2015, Knudson was cleaning Hayes's desk prior to Hayes's pending retirement. Knudson saw a stack of PRA requests in Hayes's desk, including Hoffman's. Because she was still troubled by how Hayes handled Hoffman's request, Knudson discussed the request with her two supervisors. Both supervisors instructed Knudson to call Hoffman, to tell him that she was reviewing past requests, and to determine whether Hoffman was satisfied with the response of the sheriff's office.

         Knudson called Hoffman. After Hoffman told her he had received records responsive to his request, Knudson thanked him and ended the call. Knudson did not express her concerns to Hoffman about the handling of his request.

         Several days later, Hayes spoke with the same two supervisors about Hoffman's PRA request. Like what was told to Knudson, the supervisors instructed Hayes to call Hoffman to see if he was satisfied with what he received. Hayes called Hoffman to confirm he had received what he needed. Hoffman indicated that he had, but explained he had been looking for an incident where Schnebly allegedly ran someone over. Hayes remained on the phone with Hoffman while she looked for the report, but was unable to locate it.

         On February 25, 2016, Hoffman returned to the sheriff's office. He told Knudson he should have received more documents in response to his June 2015 request, that he could sue, and that he might want to make another records request. Hoffman claimed Hayes and the person whom he sought information about, Schnebly, were drinking buddies, and this relationship was the reason he did not receive all appropriate records. Hoffman left with a blank PRA request form and said he needed to talk to some folks.

         Although Hayes knew who Schnebly was, the two did not socialize. The fact that Hayes knew of Schnebly was not a factor in Hayes's handling of Hoffman's PRA request.

         On February 29, 2016, Hoffman submitted a new request, which is not at issue in this appeal. The same day, he also resubmitted his old request. Knudson properly processed both requests and provided all documents to Hoffman on March 1, 2016. The documents relating to the resubmitted request total 126 records, and consist of 29 pages of reports, 2 videos, and 95 photos.

         Procedure

         Two days after receipt of the response to his final PRA request, Hoffman filed this PRA action against the County. He asserted that Hayes and the County acted in bad faith when Hayes withheld the records he requested.

         Hoffman filed a motion for summary judgment, but it was never heard. Instead, the parties conducted limited discovery and then agreed to waive their right to a jury trial and submit the matter to a bench trial based on stipulated facts, concessions of the parties, exhibits, and testimony through depositions, affidavits or declarations.

         After reviewing the written submissions of the parties and hearing argument of counsel, the trial court ruled in Hoffman's favor, finding the sheriff's office improperly redacted and withheld 126 records for 246 days. The court concluded, however, that Hayes's error was a result of negligence, not bad faith. The court found that Knudson had not acted negligently, that the sheriff's office had provided appropriate supervision, and that the response to Hoffman's PRA request was timely, though inadequate.

         The trial court weighed the penalty factors set by the Supreme Court in Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims, King County Exec., 168 Wn.2d 444, 229 P.3d 735 (2010) (Yousoufian II), and ordered the County to pay Hoffman his reasonable attorney fees and a penalty of $0.50 per day for each document that the sheriff's office had failed to produce or improperly redacted. Because the penalty days totaled 246, and the number of records totaled 126, the penalty totaled $15, 498. Hoffman appeals the penalty award.

         ANALYSIS

         This case is governed by the applicable standard of review. Unlike a substantive PRA violation decision, a PRA penalty determination is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Compare RCW 42.56.550(3) ("Judicial review of all agency actions taken or challenged under RCW 42.56.030 through 42.56.520 shall be de novo.") with RCW 42.56.550(4) ("[I]t shall be within the discretion of the court to award" PRA penalties.); Yousoufian v. Office of King County Exec., 152 Wn.2d 421, 431, 98 P.3d 463 (2004) (Yousoufian I) ("[T]he ...


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