44-14-04003  <<  44-14-04004 >>   44-14-04005

Responsibilities of agency in providing records.

(1) General. An agency may simply provide the records or make them available within the five-business day period of the initial response. When it does so, an agency should also provide the requestor a written cover letter or email briefly describing the records provided and informing the requestor that the request has been closed. This assists the agency in later proving that it provided the specified records on a certain date and told the requestor that the request had been closed. However, a cover letter or email might not be practical in some circumstances, such as when the agency provides a small number of records or fulfills routine requests.
An agency can, of course, provide the records sooner than five business days. Providing the "fullest assistance" to a requestor would mean providing a readily available record as soon as possible. For example, an agency might routinely prepare a premeeting packet of documents three days in advance of a city council meeting. The packet is readily available so the agency should provide it to a requestor on the same day of the request so he or she can have it for the council meeting.
(2) Means of providing access. An agency must make nonexempt public records "available" for inspection or provide a copy. RCW 42.56.080. An agency is only required to make records "available" and has no duty to explain the meaning of public records.1 Making records available is often called "access."
Access to a public record can be provided by allowing inspection of the record, providing a copy, or posting the record on the agency's web site and assisting the requestor in finding it (if necessary). An agency must mail a copy of records if requested and if the requestor pays the actual cost of postage and the mailing container.2 The requestor can specify which method of access (or combination, such as inspection and then copying) he or she prefers. Different processes apply to requests for inspection versus copying (such as copy charges) so an agency should clarify with a requestor whether he or she seeks to inspect or copy a public record.
An agency can provide access to a public record by posting it on its public internet web site. Once an agency provides a requestor an internet address and link on the agency's web site to the specific records requested, the agency has provided the records, and at no cost to the requestor. RCW 42.56.520. If requested, an agency should provide reasonable assistance to a requestor in finding a public record posted on its web site. If the requestor does not have internet access, the agency may provide access to the record by allowing the requestor to view the record on a specific computer terminal at the agency open to the public. An agency shall not impose copying charges for access to or downloading records that the agency routinely posts on its web site prior to receipt of a request unless the requestor has specifically requested that the agency provide copies of such records through other means. RCW 42.56.120 (2)(e).
(3) Providing records in installments. The act provides that an agency must provide records "if applicable, on a partial or installment basis as records that are part of a larger set of requested records are assembled or made ready for inspection or disclosure." RCW 42.56.080. An installment can include links to records on the agency's internet web site. The purpose of this installments provision is to allow requestors to obtain records in installments as they are assembled and to allow agencies to provide records in logical batches. The provision is also designed to allow an agency to only assemble the first installment and then see if the requestor claims or reviews it before assembling the next installments. An agency can assess charges per installment for copies made for the requestor, unless it is using the up to two-dollar flat fee charge. RCW 42.56.120(4).
Not all requests should be provided in installments. For example, a request for a small number of documents which are located at nearly the same time should be provided all at once. Installments are useful for large requests when, for example, an agency can provide the first box of records as an installment. An agency has wide discretion to determine when providing records in installments is "applicable." However, an agency cannot use installments to delay access by, for example, calling a small number of documents an "installment" and sending out separate notifications for each one. The agency must provide the "fullest assistance" and the "most timely possible action on requests" when processing requests. RCW 42.56.100.
(4) Failure to provide records. A "denial" of a request can occur when an agency:
Fails to respond to a request;
Claims an exemption of the entire record or a portion of it;
Without justification, fails to provide the record after the reasonable estimate of time to respond expires; or
Determines the request is an improper "bot" request. An agency is only required to provide access to public records it has or has used.3 An agency is not required to create a public record in response to a request.
An agency must only provide access to public records in existence at the time of the request. An agency is not obligated to supplement responses. Therefore, if a public record is created or comes into the possession of the agency after the request is received by the agency, it is not responsive to the request and need not be provided. A requestor must make a new request to obtain subsequently created public records.
Sometimes more than one agency holds the same record. When more than one agency holds a record, and a requestor makes a request to the first agency (agency A), agency A cannot respond to the request by telling the requestor to obtain the record from the second agency (agency B). Instead, an agency must provide access to a record it holds regardless of its availability from another agency.4
However, an agency is not required to go outside its own public records to respond to a request.5 If agency A never prepared, owned, used or retained a record, but the record is available at agency B, the requestor must make the request to agency B, not agency A.
An agency is not required to provide access to records that were not requested. An agency does not "deny" a request when it does not provide records that are outside the scope of the request because they were never asked for.
(5) Claiming exemptions.
(a) Redactions. If a portion of a record is exempt from disclosure, but the remainder is not, an agency generally is required to redact (black out) the exempt portion and then provide the remainder. RCW 42.56.210(1). There are a few exceptions.6 Withholding an entire record where only a portion of it is exempt violates the act.7 Some records are almost entirely exempt but small portions remain nonexempt. For example, information revealing the identity of a crime victim is exempt from disclosure if certain conditions are met. RCW 42.56.240(2). If a requestor requested a police report in a case in which charges have been filed, and the conditions of RCW 42.56.240(2) are met, the agency must redact the victim's identifying information but provide the rest of the report.
Statistical information "not descriptive of any readily identifiable person or persons" is generally not subject to redaction or withholding. RCW 42.56.210(1). For example, if a statute exempted the identity of a person who had been assessed a particular kind of penalty, and an agency record showed the amount of penalties assessed against various persons, the agency must provide the record with the names of the persons redacted but with the penalty amounts remaining.
Originals should not be redacted. For paper records, an agency should redact materials by first copying the record and then either using a black marker on the copy or covering the exempt portions with copying tape, and then making a copy. Another approach is to scan the paper record and redact it electronically. It is often a good practice to keep the initial copies which were redacted in case there is a need to make additional copies for disclosure or to show what was redacted; in addition, an agency is required under its records retention schedules to keep responses to a public records request for a defined period of time. For electronic records such as databases, an agency can sometimes redact a field of exempt information by excluding it from the set of fields to be copied. For other electronic records, an agency may use software that permits it to electronically redact on the copy of the record. However, in some instances electronic redaction might not be feasible and a paper copy of the record with traditional redaction might be the only way to provide the redacted record. If a record is redacted electronically, by deleting a field of data or in any other way, the agency must identify the redaction and state the basis for the claimed exemption as required by RCW 42.56.210(3).
(b) Brief explanation of withholding. When an agency claims an exemption for an entire record or portion of one, it must inform the requestor of the statutory exemption and provide a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record or portion withheld. RCW 42.56.210(3). The brief explanation should cite the statute the agency claims grants an exemption from disclosure. The brief explanation should provide enough information for a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the claimed exemption is proper. Nonspecific claims of exemption such as "proprietary" or "privacy" are insufficient.
One way to properly provide a brief explanation of the withheld record or redaction is for the agency to provide a withholding log, along with the statutory citation permitting withholding, and a description of how the exemption applies to the information withheld. The log identifies the type of record, its date and number of pages, and the author or recipient of the record (unless their identity is exempt).8 The withholding log need not be elaborate but should allow a requestor to make a threshold determination of whether the agency has properly invoked the exemption.
Another way to properly provide a brief explanation is to use another format, such as a letter providing the required exemption citations, description of records, and brief explanations. Another way to properly provide a brief explanation is to have a code for each statutory exemption, place that code on the redacted information, and attach a list of codes and the brief explanations with the agency's response.
(6) Notifying requestor that records are available. If the requestor sought to inspect the records, the agency should notify him or her that the entire request or an installment is available for inspection and ask the requestor to contact the agency to arrange for a mutually agreeable time for inspection.9 The notification should recite that if the requestor fails to inspect or copy the records or make other arrangements within thirty days of the date of the notification that the agency will close the request and refile the records. An agency might consider on a case-by-case basis sending the notification by certified mail to document that the requestor received it.
If the requestor sought copies, the agency should notify him or her of the projected costs and whether a copying deposit is required before the copies will be made. Such notice by the agency with a summary of applicable estimated charges is required when the requestor asks for an estimate. RCW 42.56.120 (2)(f). The notification can be oral to provide the most timely possible response, although it is recommended that the agency document that conversation in its file or in a follow-up email or letter.
(7) Documenting compliance. An agency should have a process to identify which records were provided to a requestor and the date of production. An agency may wish to apply a "read receipt" rule to emails to requestors or ask the requestor to confirm if he/she received the email from the agency. In some cases, an agency may wish to number-stamp or number-label paper records provided to a requestor to document which records were provided. The agency could also keep a copy of the numbered records so either the agency or requestor can later determine which records were or were not provided; and, an agency is required to keep copies of its response to a request for the time period set out in its records retention schedule. However, the agency should balance the benefits of stamping or labeling the documents and making extra copies against the costs and burdens of doing so. For example, it may not be necessary to affix a number on the pages of records provided in response to a small request.
If memorializing which specific documents were offered for inspection is impractical, an agency might consider documenting which records were provided for inspection by making a list of the files or records made available for inspection.
Notes:
1Bonamy v. City of Seattle, 92 Wn. App. 403, 409, 960 P.2d 447 (1998).
 
2Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Blaine Sch. Dist. No. 503, 86 Wn. App. 688, 695, 937 P.2d 1176 (1997); RCW 42.56.120.
 
3Sperr v. City of Spokane, 123 Wn. App. 132, 136-37, 96 P.3d 1012 (2004).
 
4Hearst Corp. v. Hoppe, 90 Wn.2d 123, 132, 580 P.2d 246 (1978).
 
5Limstrom v. Ladenburg (Limstrom II), 136 Wn.2d 595, 963 P.2d 896 (1998) n.3 ("On its face the Act does not require, and we do not interpret it to require, an agency to go outside its own records and resources to try to identify or locate the record requested."); Koenig v. Pierce County, 151 Wn. App. 221, 232-33, 211 P.3d 423 (2009) (agency has no duty to coordinate responses with other agencies, citing to and quoting Limstrom II).
 
6The two main exceptions to the redaction requirement are state "tax information" (RCW 82.32.330 (1)(c)) and law enforcement case files in active cases Sargent v. Seattle Police Dep't, 179 Wn.2d 376, 314 P.3d 1093 (2013). Neither of these two kinds of records must be redacted but rather may be withheld in their entirety.
 
7Seattle Firefighters Union Local No. 27 v. Hollister, 48 Wn. App. 129, 132, 737 P.2d 1302 (1987).
 
8Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y. v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 271, n.18, 884 P.2d 592 (1994) ("PAWS II").
 
9For smaller requests, the agency might simply provide them with the initial response or earlier so no notification is necessary.
[Statutory Authority: RCW 42.56.570. WSR 18-06-051, § 44-14-04004, filed 3/2/18, effective 4/2/18. Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, amending RCW 42.56.570. WSR 07-13-058, § 44-14-04004, filed 6/15/07, effective 7/16/07. Statutory Authority: 2005 c 483 § 4, RCW 42.17.348. WSR 06-04-079, § 44-14-04004, filed 1/31/06, effective 3/3/06.]
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