Gov. Brown signs Wieckowski bill protecting open records requesters from paying government's attorneys fee

SB 1244 stems from school district's attempt to recover almost $500,000 from a requester who refused to return documents mistakenly released by the district

September 17, 2018

SACRAMENTO – State Senator Bob Wieckowski’s (D-Fremont) bill to protect people who request public records under the California Public Records Act from having to pay the attorneys fees of a public agency was signed into law today by Governor Jerry Brown.  Supporters of Senate Bill 1244, including the California News Publishers Association (CNPA), said the bill is necessary to ensure access to public records.

“Imagine how intimidating it would be to have a government agency suing you to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees,” said Wieckowski, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “It would make people think twice about exercising their right to obtain public information. SB 1244 clarifies the state’s Public Records Act so other people are not threatened.”

The impetus for the bill was a case involving the Newark Unified School District and a Newark resident who sought public information from the district. While responding to the constituent, the district inadvertently included information it said was covered by attorney-client privilege.  It tried to claw back the information that was mistakenly released, but the constituent refused to return it. The district sued and won an appeals court decision, but then argued that it was entitled to recover almost $500,000 in attorneys fees from the Newark resident.  An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled against the district this April.      

“SB 1244 would ensure that public agencies do not use the public records act as a weapon to intimidate citizens who seek information from their government,” said Nikki Moore, the CNPA’s legal counsel. “This clarification would ensure that public agencies across the state do not repeat the arguments made by the Newark School District which allowed it to threaten an individual with $500,000 in attorneys fees for simply fighting for her constitutional right of access.”

SB 1244 clarifies that the California Public Records Act is intended to allow attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff only when the plaintiff is the requester of the records.

Senator Wieckowski represents the 10th District, which includes southern Alameda County and parts of Santa Clara County.