44-14-04002  <<  44-14-04003 >>   44-14-04004

Responsibilities of agencies in processing requests.

(1) Similar treatment and purpose of the request. The act provides: "Agencies shall not distinguish among persons requesting records, and such persons shall not be required to provide information as to the purpose for the request" (except to determine if the request is for a commercial use or would violate another statute prohibiting disclosure). RCW 42.17.270/ The act also requires an agency to take the "most timely possible action on requests" and make records "promptly available." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100 and 42.17.270/42.56.080. However, treating requestors similarly does not mean that agencies must process requests strictly in the order received because this might not be providing the "most timely possible action" for all requests. A relatively simple request need not wait for a long period of time while a much larger request is being fulfilled. Agencies are encouraged to be flexible and process as many requests as possible even if they are out of order.3
An agency cannot require a requestor to state the purpose of the request (with limited exceptions). RCW 42.17.270/42.56.080. However, in an effort to better understand the request and provide all responsive records, the agency can inquire about the purpose of the request. The requestor is not required to answer the agency's inquiry (with limited exceptions as previously noted).
(2) Provide "fullest assistance" and "most timely possible action." The act requires agencies to adopt and enforce reasonable rules to provide for the "fullest assistance" to a requestor. RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The "fullest assistance" principle should guide agencies when processing requests. In general, an agency should devote sufficient staff time to processing records requests, consistent with the act's requirement that fulfilling requests should not be an "excessive interference" with the agency's "other essential functions." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. The agency should recognize that fulfilling public records requests is one of the agency's duties, along with its others.
The act also requires agencies to adopt and enforce rules to provide for the "most timely possible action on requests." RCW 42.17.290/42.56.100. This principle should guide agencies when processing requests. It should be noted that this provision requires the most timely "possible" action on requests. This recognizes that an agency is not always capable of fulfilling a request as quickly as the requestor would like.
(3) Communicate with requestor. Communication is usually the key to a smooth public records process for both requestors and agencies. Clear requests for a small number of records usually do not require predelivery communication with the requestor. However, when an agency receives a large or unclear request, the agency should communicate with the requestor to clarify the request. If the request is modified orally, the public records officer or designee should memorialize the communication in writing.
For large requests, the agency may ask the requestor to prioritize the request so that he or she receives the most important records first. If feasible, the agency should provide periodic updates to the requestor of the progress of the request. Similarly, the requestor should periodically communicate with the agency and promptly answer any clarification questions. Sometimes a requestor finds the records he or she is seeking at the beginning of a request. If so, the requestor should communicate with the agency that the requested records have been provided and that he or she is canceling the remainder of the request. If the requestor's cancellation communication is not in writing, the agency should confirm it in writing.
(4) Failure to provide initial response within five business days. Within five business days of receiving a request, an agency must provide an initial response to requestor. The initial response must do one of four things:
(a) Provide the record;
(b) Acknowledge that the agency has received the request and provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will require to fully respond;
(c) Seek a clarification of the request; or
(d) Deny the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency's failure to provide an initial response is arguably a violation of the act.2
(5) No duty to create records. An agency is not obligated to create a new record to satisfy a records request.4 However, sometimes it is easier for an agency to create a record responsive to the request rather than collecting and making available voluminous records that contain small pieces of the information sought by the requestor or find itself in a controversy about whether the request requires the creation of a new record. The decision to create a new record is left to the discretion of the agency. If the agency is considering creating a new record instead of disclosing the underlying records, it should obtain the consent of the requestor to ensure that the requestor is not actually seeking the underlying records. Making an electronic copy of an electronic record is not "creating" a new record; instead, it is similar to copying a paper copy. Similarly, eliminating a field of an electronic record can be a method of redaction; it is similar to redacting portions of a paper record using a black pen or white-out tape to make it available for inspection or copying.
(6) Provide a reasonable estimate of the time to fully respond. Unless it is providing the records or claiming an exemption from disclosure within the five-business day period, an agency must provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fully respond to the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. Fully responding can mean processing the request (assembling records, redacting, preparing a withholding index, or notifying third parties named in the records who might seek an injunction against disclosure) or determining if the records are exempt from disclosure.
An estimate must be "reasonable." The act provides a requestor a quick and simple method of challenging the reasonableness of an agency's estimate. RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2). See WAC 44-14-08004 (5)(b). The burden of proof is on the agency to prove its estimate is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2).
To provide a "reasonable" estimate, an agency should not use the same estimate for every request. An agency should roughly calculate the time it will take to respond to the request and send estimates of varying lengths, as appropriate. Some very large requests can legitimately take months or longer to fully provide. There is no standard amount of time for fulfilling a request so reasonable estimates should vary.
Some agencies send form letters with thirty-day estimates to all requestors, no matter the size or complexity of the request. Form letter thirty-day estimates are rarely "reasonable" because an agency, which has the burden of proof, could find it difficult to prove that every single request it receives would take the same thirty-day period.
In order to avoid unnecessary litigation over the reasonableness of an estimate, an agency should briefly explain to the requestor the basis for the estimate in the initial response. The explanation need not be elaborate but should allow the requestor to make a threshold determination of whether he or she should question that estimate further or has a basis to seek judicial review of the reasonableness of the estimate.
An agency should either fulfill the request within the estimated time or, if warranted, communicate with the requestor about clarifications or the need for a revised estimate. An agency should not ignore a request and then continuously send extended estimates. Routine extensions with little or no action to fulfill the request would show that the previous estimates probably were not "reasonable." Extended estimates are appropriate when the circumstances have changed (such as an increase in other requests or discovering that the request will require extensive redaction). An estimate can be revised when appropriate, but unwarranted serial extensions have the effect of denying a requestor access to public records.
(7) Seek clarification of a request or additional time. An agency may seek a clarification of an "unclear" request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. An agency can only seek a clarification when the request is objectively "unclear." Seeking a "clarification" of an objectively clear request delays access to public records.
If the requestor fails to clarify an unclear request, the agency need not respond to it further. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. If the requestor does not respond to the agency's request for a clarification within thirty days of the agency's request, the agency may consider the request abandoned. If the agency considers the request abandoned, it should send a closing letter to the requestor.
An agency may take additional time to provide the records or deny the request if it is awaiting a clarification. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. After providing the initial response and perhaps even beginning to assemble the records, an agency might discover it needs to clarify a request and is allowed to do so. A clarification could also affect a reasonable estimate.
(8) Preserving requested records. If a requested record is scheduled shortly for destruction, and the agency receives a public records request for it, the record cannot be destroyed until the request is resolved. RCW 42.17.290/ Once a request has been closed, the agency can destroy the requested records in accordance with its retention schedule.
(9) Searching for records. An agency must conduct an objectively reasonable search for responsive records. A requestor is not required to "ferret out" records on his or her own.6 A reasonable agency search usually begins with the public records officer for the agency or a records coordinator for a department of the agency deciding where the records are likely to be and who is likely to know where they are. One of the most important parts of an adequate search is to decide how wide the search will be. If the agency is small, it might be appropriate to initially ask all agency employees if they have responsive records. If the agency is larger, the agency may choose to initially ask only the staff of the department or departments of an agency most likely to have the records. For example, a request for records showing or discussing payments on a public works project might initially be directed to all staff in the finance and public works departments if those departments are deemed most likely to have the responsive documents, even though other departments may have copies or alternative versions of the same documents. Meanwhile, other departments that may have documents should be instructed to preserve their records in case they are later deemed to be necessary to respond to the request. The agency could notify the requestor which departments are being surveyed for the documents so the requestor may suggest other departments. It is better to be over inclusive rather than under inclusive when deciding which staff should be contacted, but not everyone in an agency needs to be asked if there is no reason to believe he or she has responsive records. An email to staff selected as most likely to have responsive records is usually sufficient. Such an email also allows an agency to document whom it asked for records.
Agency policies should require staff to promptly respond to inquiries about responsive records from the public records officer.
After records which are deemed responsive are located, an agency should take reasonable steps to narrow down the number of records to those which are responsive. In some cases, an agency might find it helpful to consult with the requestor on the scope of the documents to be assembled. An agency cannot "bury" a requestor with nonresponsive documents. However, an agency is allowed to provide arguably, but not clearly, responsive records to allow the requestor to select the ones he or she wants, particularly if the requestor is unable or unwilling to help narrow the scope of the documents.
(10) Expiration of reasonable estimate. An agency should provide a record within the time provided in its reasonable estimate or communicate with the requestor that additional time is required to fulfill the request based on specified criteria. Unjustified failure to provide the record by the expiration of the estimate is a denial of access to the record.
(11) Notice to affected third parties. Sometimes an agency decides it must release all or a part of a public record affecting a third party. The third party can file an action to obtain an injunction to prevent an agency from disclosing it, but the third party must prove the record or portion of it is exempt from disclosure.7 RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Before sending a notice, an agency should have a reasonable belief that the record is arguably exempt. Notices to affected third parties when the records could not reasonably be considered exempt might have the effect of unreasonably delaying the requestor's access to a disclosable record.
The act provides that before releasing a record an agency may, at its "option," provide notice to a person named in a public record or to whom the record specifically pertains (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. This would include all of those whose identity could reasonably be ascertained in the record and who might have a reason to seek to prevent the release of the record. An agency has wide discretion to decide whom to notify or not notify. First, an agency has the "option" to notify or not (unless notice is required by law). RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540. Second, if it acted in good faith, an agency cannot be held liable for its failure to notify enough people under the act. RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060. However, if an agency had a contractual obligation to provide notice of a request but failed to do so, the agency might lose the immunity provided by RCW 42.17.258/42.56.060 because breaching the agreement probably is not a "good faith" attempt to comply with the act.
The practice of many agencies is to give ten days' notice. Many agencies expressly indicate the deadline date to avoid any confusion. More notice might be appropriate in some cases, such as when numerous notices are required, but every additional day of notice is another day the potentially disclosable record is being withheld. When it provides a notice, the agency should include the notice period in the "reasonable estimate" it provides to a requestor.
The notice informs the third party that release will occur on the stated date unless he or she obtains an order from a court enjoining release. The requestor has an interest in any legal action to prevent the disclosure of the records he or she requested. Therefore, the agency's notice should inform the third party that he or she should name the requestor as a party to any action to enjoin disclosure. If an injunctive action is filed, the third party or agency should name the requestor as a party or, at a minimum, must inform the requestor of the action to allow the requestor to intervene.
(12) Later discovered records. If the agency becomes aware of the existence of records responsive to a request which were not provided, the agency should notify the requestor in writing and provide a brief explanation of the circumstances.
1See also Op. Att'y Gen. 2 (1998).
2See Smith v. Okanogan County, 100 Wn. App. 7, 13, 994 P.2d 857 (2000) ("When an agency fails to respond as provided in RCW 42.17.320 (42.56.520), it violates the act and the individual requesting the public record is entitled to a statutory penalty.").
3While an agency can fulfill requests out of order, an agency is not allowed to ignore a large request while it is exclusively fulfilling smaller requests. The agency should strike a balance between fulfilling small and large requests.
4Smith, 100 Wn. App. at 14.
5An exception is some state-agency employee personnel records. RCW 42.17.295/42.56.110.
6Daines v. Spokane County, 111 Wn. App. 342, 349, 44 P.3d 909 (2002) ("an applicant need not exhaust his or her own ingenuity to ‘ferret out’ records through some combination of ‘intuition and diligent research’”).
7The agency holding the record can also file a RCW 42.17.330/42.56.540 injunctive action to establish that it is not required to release the record or portion of it.
[Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, amending RCW 42.56.570. WSR 07-13-058, § 44-14-04003, filed 6/15/07, effective 7/16/07. Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. WSR 06-04-079, § 44-14-04003, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]
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