SLAPP Suit Blocked: Court of Appeals Rejects SLAPP Claim in Public Records Act Case
The Washington Court of Appeals today concluded that Washington's "anti-SLAPP" statute
cannot be invoked when a municipality seeks a declaratory judgment to clarify its obligations under the Public Records Act
. The Court's conclusions should be a welcome relief for Washington municipalities seeking to clarify their obligations under the Public Records Act and thereby to minimize their exposure to the substantial penalties that are sometimes imposed under the Act. City of Seattle v. Egan, No. 69129-5-I (Wash. App. Div. I, filed Feb. 3, 2014).
The Court of Appeal's decision arises from a Public Records Act request for documents related to an internal investigation of complaints filed against four Seattle police officers. Among the documents requested are 36 "dash-cam" videos. Believing the videos are exempt from disclosure under RCW 9.73.090(1)(c), which prohibits cities from providing videos to the public when legal action involving those videos is pending, the City withheld 35 of the 36 videos. In the face of threat of lawsuit seeking to force disclosure of the videos, the City filed a motion for declaration and preliminary injunction, asking the lower court to declare that the 35 videos are exempt from Public Records Act disclosure. The Public Records Act authorizes this procedure under RCW 42.56.540
In response, the individual requesting the records attempted to invoke the "anti-SLAPP" statute, which bars "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation." The Court concluded that the anti-SLAPP statute does not apply in the context for Public Records Act actions for two reasons. First, the Court found that the anti-SLAPP statute is intended to protect constitutional free speech rights, while the Public Records Act's public disclosure requirements create only statutory, not constitutional, rights. Second, the Court found that, following standard rules of statutory construction, the anti-SLAPP statute cannot be read to override the specific provisions of the Public Records Act allowing for declaratory judgment actions.
The decision is an important milestone under the Public Records Act because it makes clear that units of government can use the procedures specified in the Public Records Act to determine the extent of their obligation to produce potentially exempt public records. In this way, government agencies can reduce their exposure to assessments of penalties under the Public Records Act without fear that taking such action will create liability under the anti-SLAPP statute.
If you have any questions about this post or the Washington Public Records Act, please contact a member of GTH's Municipalities & Municipal Entities practice group
. We have decades of experience in assisting Washington cities, PUDs, and other municipal entities in dealing with the Public Records Act, the Open Meetings Act, the Washington Constitution, public contracting, and other aspects of municipal law in Washington.