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Hoffman v. Kittitas County

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

September 26, 2019

KITTITAS COUNTY, a local agency and the KITTITAS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, a local agency, Respondents.

          FAIRHURST, C.J.

         Penalty awards by the trial court in Public Records Act (PRA)[1] cases are reviewed for abuse of discretion. In Yousoufian II, [2] we set forth a nonexclusive list of aggravating and mitigating factors, including agency bad faith, to guide trial courts as they exercise discretion. Petitioner Randall Hoffman argues that the trial court's finding that the agency respondents lacked bad faith is reviewable de novo. We decline Hoffman's invitation to carve out separate standards of review for specific Yousoufian II factors, and we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by imposing a $15, 498 penalty. We affirm the Court of Appeals.


         A. Factual background

         Because neither party challenges the trial court's factual findings, we accept them as verities on appeal. Yousoufian II, 168 Wn.2d at 450. On June 29, 2015, Hoffman submitted a public records request to the Kittitas County Sheriffs Office seeking all police reports, including photos and videos, referencing an individual named Erin Schnebly. The request was processed by Carolyn Hayes, the office's public records clerk. Hayes performed an initial search in the office's electronic "Spillman" case management system and located 7 responsive police reports. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 891. Hayes did not locate any photos or videos. A thorough review of the reports in the Spillman system and the office's physical storage would have also revealed 95 photographs and 2 videos related to the responsive reports.

         Hayes telephoned Hoffman for clarification. She was concerned that she had missed something because she could not find any involvement by Hoffman in the incidents and had not found any photos or videos. Based on an interpretation of RCW 42.56.050[3] that the parties now agree was erroneous, Hayes told Hoffman that because he was not a party involved in the reports, she could not provide to him the majority of the documents requested. Though the parties submitted conflicting evidence on this point, the trial court found that Hoffman, relying on this misinformation, agreed to limit his request to the responsive records' "face sheets" indicating the type of incident, date, and location. CP at 896. Hayes then sent Hoffman heavily redacted copies of the face sheets and an exemption log citing the inapplicable RCW provision. She did not provide the full police reports, nor did she provide the photos and videos that she had failed to locate.

         Hayes was at that time preparing for retirement and working only one or two days per week. Earlier that month, she had begun training Kallee Knudson as her public records clerk replacement. Knudson overheard part of the phone conversation and was confused by Hayes' handling of the request. Knudson asked Hayes to explain her reasoning and did not fully understand Hayes' response but ultimately deferred to Hayes' experience.

         In September 2015, Knudson came across the paper copy of Hoffman's request while cleaning out Hayes' desk. She was still troubled by how it had been handled and expressed her concerns to her supervisors, Kim Dawson and Sergeant Steve Panattoni. On their advice, she called Hoffman to follow up. Hoffman informed her that "he did get his request, " but Knudson did not explain her concerns or express her belief that he was entitled to more documents. Id. at 893. Dawson and Panattoni then spoke with Hayes, who also called Hoffman to confirm he had received what he needed. Hoffman said that he had but that he was curious about other incidents that he thought might not have been reflected in what he received. Hayes remained on the phone while she looked for further reports and, finding none, discussed that the incidents might not have been reported to the police.

         Hayes retired in October 2015. In February 2016, Hoffman visited the office. He told Knudson that he should have gotten more documents, that he could sue, and that the reason he had not received all responsive records was that Hayes and Schnebly were drinking buddies.[4]

         Hoffman returned on February 29, 2016. He resubmitted his original request and submitted a second request not at issue in this appeal. The next day, Knudson provided all 7 responsive police reports with minor redactions (totaling 29 pages), as well as the 2 videos and 95 photos, free of charge.

         B. Procedural history

         Hoffman then sued respondents Kittitas County and the Kittitas County Sheriffs Office (hereinafter collectively County), alleging that Hayes' initial response violated the PRA.[5] The parties agreed to a bench trial based on stipulated and conceded facts, with affidavits, declarations, and other documentary evidence submitted to litigate contested facts. No oral testimony was given.

         The trial court found that the County had violated the PRA by improperly redacting and withholding records for 246 days-that is, from June 29, 2015 (the date of Hoffman's original request) to March 1, 2016 (when Knudson responded to the renewed request). The court issued a separate order setting the amount of the County's penalty after weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors set forth in Yousoufian II, 168 Wn.2d at 463-68. The court found, among other things, that the County had acted negligently, but not in bad faith. The court imposed a penalty of $0.50 per day per page/photo/video, [6] for a total of $15, 498.00. The court also awarded reasonable attorney fees to Hoffman as a prevailing party against an agency in a PRA action, as required by RCW 42.56.550(4).

         Hoffman appealed the penalty award (but not the attorney fees award). Hoffman v. Kittitas County, 4 Wn.App. 2d 489, 422 P.3d 466 (2018). Hoffman's primary argument before the Court of Appeals was that the trial court erred in finding, pursuant to its analysis of the Yousoufian II factors, that the County had not acted in bad faith. As a result, Hoffman argued, the penalty amount was too low.[7]Hoffman also asserted that the trial court's determination of the County's culpability was subject to de novo review.

         The Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court's overall penalty imposition under an abuse of discretion standard, "f[ound] no reversible error in the trial court's culpability assessment, " and affirmed the penalty. Hoffman, 4 Wn.App. 2d at 498. "Looking at the County's overall level of culpability here, " the majority held that "the trial court appropriately found that agency culpability was merely a moderately aggravating factor, thereby justifying a moderate penalty assessment." Id. at 499.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Hoffman argues that when the factual findings in a PRA action that was tried on solely documentary evidence are accepted as verities, an appellate court should review de novo the trial court's determination of agency bad faith (or, as in this case, lack thereof) that underlies its penalty assessment. He urges us to review de novo the trial court's determination that the County lacked bad faith, find that the County acted in bad faith, and remand to the trial court for reassessment of the proper penalty amount.

         We affirm the Court of Appeals. We hold that our task under the PRA is to review the overall penalty assessment under an abuse of discretion standard. Using this standard of review, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in setting a per diem penalty of $0.50 per page/photo/video.

         A. An appellate court's task is to review the trial court's overall PRA ...

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