Monday, July 13, 2015
State Supreme Court to Decide Whether Law Firms’ Bills to County Must Be Made Public
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether invoices to Los Angeles County from the law firms defending it in suits regarding jail violence are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco Wednesday, unanimous granted the petition by the ACLU and taxpayer Eric Preven to review the April 13 ruling of Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal in County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors v. Superior Court (ACLU of Southern California) (2015) 235 Cal. App. 4th 1154.
The court said in the opinion that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin was wrong when he held that the documents were not shielded from the CPRA by the attorney-client privilege.
The plaintiffs filed suit two years ago after the county rejected their CPRA requests. They asked that the county disclose the invoices, as well as contracts between the county and various persons hired to oversee implementation of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
Disclosure would aid in holding the Sheriff’s Department accountable for the conduct disclosed by the commission, which said top department personnel encouraged overly aggressive behavior by deputies, the plaintiffs argued.
Justice Richard Aldrich, however, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the county was entitled to rely on the act’s exemption for privileged communications, found in Government Code §6254(k). The statute allows an entity subject to the CPRA to withhold “[r]ecords, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law, including, but not limited to, provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege.”
Evidence Code §952, Aldrich noted, extends the attorney-client privilege to any “confidential communication,” including “information transmitted between a client and his or her lawyer in the course of that relationship and in confidence,” by confidential means, and to a communication that “includes a legal opinion formed and the advice given by the lawyer in the course of that relationship.”
California case law also broadly defines the term, the justice explained.
The plaintiffs’ argument that a communication must contain legal advice to fall under the privilege “would be problematic” the justice said, because it would mean that a communication from the client to the lawyer would never be privileged, which would obviously be contrary to legislative intent.
The justice acknowledged that the specific issue of whether attorney invoices are privileged has not been previously decided by the court. In a footnote, he further acknowledged that non-California authority is divided on the subject. Out-of-state cases, however, “are of limited utility,” he said, because in California, the attorney-client privilege is statutory.
The open-government organization Californians Aware had urged the high court to depublish Aldrich’s opinion in the event it did not grant review. The Los Angeles County Bar Association opposed the request, supporting the county’s position.
The Association of Southern California Defense Counsel filed an amicus brief supporting the county in the Court of Appeal.
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