Civil Discovery Act Applies to Public Records Act Proceedings, California Appellate Court Concludes

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Public entities litigating California Public Records Act cases may now face the additional burden of responding to civil discovery requests. The Second District Court of Appeal recently issued its opinion in City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, et al., confirming the lower court’s determination that the Civil Discovery Act applies to actions brought under the CPRA. This decision means that, under certain circumstances, individuals seeking records from a public agency pursuant to the CPRA may use the time-intensive civil discovery process to determine whether the agency is lawfully withholding documents. Likewise, the agency may also send discovery requests to the party requesting the public records.
 
This case began when an individual, Cynthia Anderson-Barker, filed a petition under the CPRA asking the court to require the City of Los Angeles to disclose certain electronically stored documents and data relating to vehicles impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department. The City argued that the requested materials did not qualify as “public records” because they were owned by a third party — a private company hired by the City to tow and store impounded vehicles — not the City itself.
 
Anderson-Barker then made a variety of discovery requests, seeking evidence regarding the City’s claim that it did not own the materials. The City objected to the requests, arguing that Anderson-Barker had no right to them as part of a CPRA action. The trial court ruled against the City, holding that the Civil Discovery Act did apply to CPRA proceedings, and ordered the City to disclose the documents.
 
The City appealed, arguing that the language and intent of the CPRA demonstrates that the Civil Discovery Act is inapplicable to CPRA proceedings. Allowing discovery in CPRA actions, the City argued, defeats the Legislature’s purpose in establishing an expedited review process in such cases. Had the Legislature intended to have the Civil Discovery Act apply to the CPRA, it could have included specific language to that effect, the City said in its appeal.
 
The Civil Discovery Act applies in civil actions and “special proceedings of a civil nature.” In rejecting the City’s argument, the appellate court concluded that “[b]ecause the CPRA qualifies as a special proceeding of a civil nature, and the Legislature has not included any exemption precluding discovery in such proceedings… the discovery act applies.”
 
The appellate court did note that the scope of discovery in a CPRA proceeding may be more limited than in other types of civil actions. Citing cases interpreting the Freedom of Information Act — the federal legislation on which the CPRA was modeled — the appellate court explained that “where the government has provided a detailed factual basis in support of its decision to withhold documents (generally through affidavits) discovery is warranted only if the plaintiff makes a sufficient showing of bad faith or is able to provide tangible evidence that the records have been improperly withheld.” The appellate court explained that, in evaluating motions to compel discovery, trial courts have discretion to consider whether the petitioner has “made an adequate showing that discovery is likely to aid in the resolution of the particular issues presented in the proceeding.”
 
The appellate court acknowledged the City’s argument that allowing discovery in CPRA actions will impose increased burdens on public agencies, but concluded that such issues are best left to the Legislature to resolve. The court noted that the burdens and delays that could be imposed on a public entity could be considered by the trial court in exercising its discretion to allow discovery in a CPRA proceeding.
 
While this decision upholds the lower court’s determination that the Civil Discovery Act applies to CPRA cases, it also reverses two other aspects of the lower court’s order by allowing the City to submit new objections to Anderson-Barker’s discovery requests, and overturning the lower court’s imposition of sanctions on the City.
 
(Best Best & Krieger drafted an amicus brief in this case on behalf of The California State Association of Counties in support of the City.)

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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