Civil Litigation Discovery Legal Topics

How to Get California Public Records

The usual discovery requests don’t always get you what you need. Sometimes you’ll do better seeking a public record under the California Public Records Act (Govt C §§6250–6276.48). 

Requests for information from state agencies can be invaluable in some cases. For example, in County of Los Angeles v Superior Court (2000) 82 CA4th 819, an action for false imprisonment by three former county jail inmates against Los Angeles County, plaintiffs’ counsel, who was unsuccessful in obtaining county documents in discovery, filed a request under Govt C §§6250–6276.48. The court held that the California Public Records Act may be used to gain access to public records that aren’t exempt from discovery, regardless of the purpose for which the records are requested, and that the plaintiffs were entitled to use those records in the litigation.

Here’s how to get a public record from California and what to expect:

  • Ask for it! The public has a right to disclosure of public records from the California government. There’s no need to give any reason for the request or for it to have any relevance to a case. All that’s required is paying the cost of copying the documents. Govt C §6253(b).
  • Be prepared to wait a while. The agency generally must respond to the request within 10 days of its receipt—that’s the fast part. But actually getting the requested documents may take considerably longer, so it’s important to begin the process early.
  • Expect to get help. The public agency is required to assist with the request. Under Govt C §6253.1, the public agency must help identify the responsive records and information, describe where the  records and information exist, and give suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access to the records or information sought. Govt C §6253.1(a). Alternatively, the agency can make the requested records available or provide an index of its records.
  • Receive an exact copy. The public agency must produce an exact copy of the requested records, unless it’s impracticable to do so. Govt C §6253(b). When an agency stores records in electronic format, production of those records must also be in electronic format, if requested. Govt C §6253.9.
  • Watch out for attorney fees! A party whose request is at least partially successful will be deemed a prevailing party under Govt C §6259(d), and will be entitled to recover the court costs and reasonable attorney fees expended to obtain the produced documents, as long as the party can show a substantial causal relationship between the request and the production of documents. Govt C §6259(d). But a public agency can also request an award of attorney fees and costs from a person pursuing a record request on a finding that the case is “clearly frivolous.” Govt C §6259(d).

Learn about exemptions to California’s Public Records Act and when a public agency may assert the official information privilege in CEB’s California Civil Discovery Practice, chap 3.

Other articles you may find useful:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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