Records Owned And Held By A Third Party Are Not Public Records Even If A Public Agency Has A Right To Access Such Records

March 2019
Number 16

A recent California appellate court ruling has clarified the reach of the California Public Records Act (CPRA). InAnderson-Barker v. City of Los Angeles, the Second District Court of Appeal held that records in the possession of a third party contractor under a contract with the City of Los Angeles were not subject to the CPRA where the city had access to but did not actually possess or control the records.

Background

In Anderson-Barker, the plaintiff sought to compel the city to disclose electronically stored data relating to vehicles that private towing companies had impounded as directed by Los Angeles Police Department per a contractual agreement. The city had access to this information but did not control the data stored, nor did it control the databases on which it was stored. The city argued that the requested data did not qualify as “public records” under the CPRA because the city did not possess or control the data. Recent amendments to the contract with the third party contractors expressly stated that the data was “owned” by the contractors. The trial court ruled in favor of the city, and the Court of Appeal
affirmed that decision.

Analysis

The court focused on the issue of possession to decide whether the data in question must be produced under the CPRA. Prior state and federal cases (the latter addressing the Freedom of Information Act) had held that records are considered in possession or “constructive possession” of a public entity if they have “the right to control the records.” The court, particularly following federal cases, held that constructive possession does not apply when the entity only has access to the data: “[t]o conclude otherwise, would effectively transform any privately-held information that a state or local agency has contracted to access into a disclosable public record.”

The court further explained why this case does not reach the same result as the California Supreme Court’s decision inCity of San Jose v. Superior Court (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608. At issue in City of San Jose was a CPRA request for “all electronic information relating to public business, sent or received by [mayor and council members] using his or her private electronic devices” related to a city-involved real estate matter. The California Supreme Court ruled that such records were subject to the CPRA. (See 2017 Client News Brief No. 11.) The City of San Jose court, focusing on the definition of “public record,” held that a record does not lose its “public record” status simply because of its location on a public employee’s personal account. The Anderson-Barker court focused on a CPRA requirement distinct from the definition of “public record,” that the record must be in the possession or control of the agency, ultimately finding that the City of Los Angeles did not have possession or control of the record because the record was with a third party. The city had only access to the records, and the court concluded that access does not satisfy the requirement of possession or control. However, the court also explained that data actually extracted from the database by the governmental agency and used for a governmental purpose might be disclosable.

Anderson-Barker thus creates a distinction between documents in possession of an employee or official versus documents controlled by a third party contractor. The former will generally be subject to the CPRA, while the latter generally will not.

Takeaways

Under Anderson-Barker, members of the public may not have a right to access records in the possession of a third party contractor. An agency or its employees or officials must control, and not merely have access to records, in order for the records to be subject to mandatory production under the CPRA. Public agencies may wish to address the structure of document control through contractual arrangements with third party contractors, allowing the agency to decide who controls records for purposes of CPRA production.

If you have any questions about theAnderson-Barker v. City of Los Angeles decision or the California Public Records Act in general, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Harold M. Freiman

Partner

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Governor Signs Charter Transparency Bill

March 2019
Number 15

Newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a bill aimed at increasing charter school transparency. Senate Bill (SB) 126 settles, once and for all, the debate over whether charter schools and their governing bodies are subject to California’s open meeting, conflicts of interest, and public records laws.

Background

Previous attempts to pass legislation intended to make charter schools subject to California’s “sunshine laws” were vetoed by former Governor Jerry Brown. By comparison, SB 126 was fast-tracked through the Legislature at the Governor’s urging. The new law comes on the heels of a December 26, 2018 Attorney General opinion which concluded that charters schools were subject to sunshine and conflict of interest laws under the existing statutory scheme. (See 2019 Client News Brief No. 7.) Unlike the statute, the Attorney General opinion was advisory, but not binding.

SB 126

SB 126, which will take effect on January 1, 2020, makes charter schools and entities managing charter schools subject to the Ralph M. Brown Act (Brown Act), the California Public Records Act (Public Records Act), Government Code section 1090 and the Political Reform Act of 1974 (Political Reform Act).

While these laws have never explicitly exempted charter schools, SB 126 specifically provides that charter schools will be held to the same transparency and accountability standards as other public and local agencies, including school districts. In the past, charter authorizers sometimes entered into separate agreements with charter schools mandating compliance with these laws, something that will no longer be necessary once SB 126 takes effect.

Compliance with the Brown Act will impact the practices of many charter schools and the entities managing charter schools. Among other things, the bill requires charter school governing bodies to hold meetings within the physical boundaries of the county where the charter schools are located, or, within the county in which the greatest number of pupils reside if the governing body operates charter schools in multiple counties. SB 126 also requires charter schools to establish two-way teleconference locations at each school site. These provisions may provide more students, parents and community members the opportunity to attend governing board meetings, which has not always been possible when charter schools are managed by entities located outside of counties where their charter schools are located.

SB 126 also requires charter schools and entities managing charter schools to:

  • Comply with California’s Public Records Act, which requires that state and local entities make their records available for public inspection or copying unless exempt from disclosure;
  • Adopt a conflict of interest policy as required by the Public Reform Act; and
  • Comply with the prohibitions against self-dealing in public contracts as required by Government Code section 1090. SB 126 permits an employee of the charter school to serve on the charter’s governing board regardless of the employee’s employment status, but the employee must abstain from voting on matters that could affect his or her employment.

Of note, SB 126 does not include any “grandfathering” language that would exempt existing charters from compliance with the new law; thus, all charter schools must be in compliance when the law takes effect on January 1, 2020.

Takeaways

SB 126 provides long awaited guidance clarifying that charter schools are subject to the same transparency laws as other public and local agencies. Authorizing school boards or county boards of education should consider reviewing and amending their policies governing charter schools to ensure the charter schools they authorize and oversee are in compliance when SB 126 takes effect on January 1, 2020. Going forward, charter schools will need to review and revise their policies and, possibly, their petitions to ensure that they are complying with all of the provisions of SB 126.

For additional information regarding SB 126 and its impact on charter schools and school districts, please contact the authors of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Claudia P. Weaver

Partner

Gayle L. Ketchie

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.

Court Clarifies Interplay Between Education Code Discipline And The Brown Act’s 24-Hour Notice Requirement

February 2019
Number 14

In Ricasa v. Office of Administrative Hearings, certified for publication on January 14, 2019, the California Court of Appeal attempted to harmonize an apparent dissonance between the Ralph M. Brown Act’s personnel exception, and the disciplinary procedures of the Education Code. The opinion constitutes the first time an appellate court has ruled on the Brown Act’s personnel exception in the context of community college districts, and the opinion’s implications reach to all public entities that discipline employees under the Education Code. Lozano Smith attorneys, including Mark Waterman (one of the authors of this news brief), successfully represented the community college on this appeal.

Background

Appellant Arlie Ricasa (Ricasa) served as the Director of Student Development for the Southwestern Community College District (Southwestern), while at the same time serving as an elected board member of a separate, but closely tied, entity, the Sweetwater Union High School District (Sweetwater). Ricasa was implicated in the Sweetwater scandal, which received substantial media coverage, and had criminal charges filed against her for counts that included bribery and corruption. As a Sweetwater board member, Ricasa voted on million-dollar vendor contracts while also receiving gifts from the contractors, including dinners and a scholarship for her daughter. She did not disclose the gifts on her required Economic Interest Form 700, and ultimately pled guilty to violating the Political Reform Act. Her guilty plea admitted she accepted gifts and failed to disclose them, and that the gifts were provided with the intent to influence her vote on business awarded to the contractor.

After Southwestern demoted Ricasa in compliance with the Education Code, Ricasa exercised her right to appeal the demotion to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), but lost her appeal on the merits. Ricasa also filed petitions in trial court to challenge the demotion, including on the ground that Southwestern’s Board violated the Brown Act by meeting in closed session without first providing Ricasa 24-hour notice under Government Code section 54957. The Superior Court denied Ricasa’s petitions generally, but ruled that the Brown Act required the college to give her 24-hour notice of the Board’s closed session discussion. Both sides appealed, and the Court confirmed that the Brown Act must be interpreted consistently with the Education Code when determining whether 24-hour notice is required.

Education Code Discipline and 24-Hour Notice under the Brown Act

The Education Code governs discipline of community college district employees, which may occur under section 87732 for immoral or unprofessional conduct, or for conviction of a felony or any crime involving moral turpitude. The Education Code imposes specific procedural requirements for such discipline, including the board’s receipt of recommendations from the district’s superintendent/president, the receipt and consideration of certain information, the preparation of charges, and notice to the employee of the right to appeal the discipline via a full evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge.

The Brown Act generally requires that board meetings be open to the public. Closed sessions may be conducted only if authorized by statute. The relevant statutory authorization, often referred to as the personnel exception, is found in Government Code section 54957. The personnel exception allows a board in closed session to “consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee by another person or employee unless the employee requests an open public session.” [Emphasis added.] For the latter category of actions, the employee must be given 24-hour advance written notice of his or her right to have the complaints or charges heard in an open session.

Ricasa argued, and the Superior Court held, that the Education Code’s disciplinary requirements transformed the closed session into a “hearing” for which 24-hour notice was required. The Court of Appeal rejected Ricasa’s theory and clarified the interplay between the Education Code and the Brown Act. The Court of Appeal held that the presentation of charges and a recommendation by the district president (who was not a percipient witness) did not transform the closed session into a “hearing” requiring 24-hour notice, nor did the length of the closed session, the lack of a post-session announcement, or the closed session debate as to whether the facts in the guilty plea sufficed to impose discipline. The Court ruled that Ricasa’s contrary “interpretation would eviscerate the personnel exception by preventing the governing boards of community colleges from engaging in the type of ‘free and candid’ discussions that the Legislature has deemed necessary for them to manage their personnel.”

Takeaways

Disciplining employees without violating the Brown Act’s 24-hour notice rule involves complex, nuanced legal evaluations for which counsel should be consulted. The Ricasa opinion confirms that for educational agencies the Brown Act must be interpreted in light of the Education Code and that compliance with the mandatory Education Code disciplinary requirements does not necessarily transform a board’s closed session into a “hearing” requiring 24-hour notice. While the Court did not rule that Education Code compliance forecloses 24-hour notice in all Education Code disciplinary matters, it provided substantial clarification for how the Education Code and the Brown Act must be interpreted together so as not to “eviscerate” the personnel exception.

For additional information regarding the Ricasa opinion and how it may impact disciplinary matters in your district, please contact the author of this Client News Brief or an attorney at one of our eight offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or download our Client News Brief App.

Written by:

Mark W. Waterman

Partner

Marisa Montenegro

Associate

©2019 Lozano Smith

As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.