Monday, March 6, 2017
Discovery Rules Apply to Public Records Litigation—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Civil Discovery Act applies to litigation under the California Public Records Act, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Seven Thursday granted in part a petition for writ of mandate brought by the City of Los Angeles. The panel rejected the city’s claim that the discovery statute does not apply to CPRA proceedings, but ruled that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jane Johnson should not have imposed monetary sanctions, and that the city may interpose new objections to the discovery requested by Los Angeles attorney Cynthia Anderson-Barker.
Anderson-Barker sued the city in November 2011, seeking disclosure of electronically stored documents and data relating to vehicles impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department. The city had previously rejected Anderson-Barker’s CPRA request, saying the materials were not public records because they were owned by a private party.
Objection to Discovery
Anderson-Barker sought discovery on the issue of who owned the materials. The city objected on the sole ground that the discovery act does not apply in CPRA proceedings, and Anderson-Barker moved to compel.
Johnson granted the motion, ordered the city to pay some $5,500 in sanctions, and barred the city from making further objections to the requests. The city then brought its writ petition.
Justice Laurie Zelon, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the discovery act applied. A proceeding to enforce the CPRA is “a special proceeding of a civil nature,” to which the Civil Discovery Act applies, according to Code of Civil Procedure §§2017.010 and 2016.020(b), the justice said.
A special proceeding, the jurist elaborated, is one that is neither an action at law or a suit in equity, but is established by statute and not dependent on the existence of a separate civil action. “Because the CPRA qualifies as a special proceeding of a civil nature, and the Legislature has not included any exemption precluding discovery in such proceedings, we conclude that the discovery act applies,” the justice wrote.
Zelon rejected the city’s argument that the CPRA’s silence as to discovery indicates that the Legislature did not intend to permit it. The justice cited cases applying the discovery act to other special proceedings, including civil commitment proceedings under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, when there was no specific statutory language on the issue.
The justice also rejected the claim that allowing discovery would be inconsistent with legislative intent that public records requests be resolved expeditiously. Trial judges can manage and limit discovery in CPRA cases, just as in other proceedings, while denying discovery outright my thwart the public’s right to know, which is the essence of the CPRA, Zelon said.
Abuse of Discretion
The jurist went on to conclude, however, that the imposition of sanctions and denial of the right to make further objections constitute abuses of judicial discretion. The case is one of first impression, she said, so the lack of prior authority constituted substantial justification for the city’s objection.
Attorneys on appeal were Deputy City Attorneys Blithe Smith Bock and Gabriel L. Ruha for Los Angeles; Shawn Hagerty, Rebecca Andrews and Victoria Hester of Best Best & Krieger for the California State Association of Counties, as amicus supporting the city; Donald Cook for Anderson-Barker; and Kelli L. Sager, Dan Laidman and Thomas R. Burke of Davis Wright Tremaine, for media and open government organizations supporting Anderson-Barker.
The case is City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Anderson-Barker), 17 S.O.S. 1123.
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