Senate approves Wieckowski bill to strengthen California Public Records Act

May 23, 2019

SACRAMENTO – With bipartisan support, the state Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill by Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), supported by First Amendment advocates and newspaper organizations, that protects the California Public Records Act (CPRA) by preventing government agencies from attempting to shift attorney costs onto the public records requesters.

Under the California Code of Civil Procedure Section 998, settlement offers, if rejected, provide that the offering party is entitled to recover its litigation costs in the event the rejecting party fails to obtain a better result at trial. 

“A 998 offer is a useful and important tool to bring parties together to settle in civil litigation, but it should have no place in California Public Records Act cases,” said Wieckowski, a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.  “SB 518 ensures that the CPRA is being used as it is intended: as a way for Californians to get information from their government without fear of being burdened by attorney fees. The threat of possibly having to pay an agency’s attorney fees could deter the public from seeking records they are entitled to under the law.”

The CPRA mandates that a court award costs and reasonable attorney fees to the requester should the requester prevail in litigation, meaning the agency releases a copy of a previously withheld document.  The only time a court can award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the agency is if the court finds that the request is frivolous.

“Agencies that attempt to coerce requesters into bargaining away their rights under the CPRA by telling them they may be financially penalized if they don’t accept the agency’s 998 offer are acting reprehensibly and showing contempt for the notion that people have a fundamental right of access to government held information,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California News Publishers Association.  “SB 518 is a check on abuses of power and fulfills the promise made in the California Constitution.”

In addition to CNPA, SB 518 is supported by the First Amendment Coalition, the Coalition for Sensible Public Records Access, Oakland Privacy, the California Employment Lawyers Association and other organizations.

The bill now heads to the state Assembly.

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