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County of Los Angeles v. the Superior Court of Los Angeles County

November 16, 2012


(Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS134587) ORIGINAL PROCEEDING in mandate. James C. Chalfant, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rubin, Acting P. J.


Petition denied.

This writ petition presents the following question: May a surrogate for a party to a pending lawsuit against a public entity obtain documents under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) relating to the attorney fees charged by litigation counsel for the public entity? In this case, we answer the question in the affirmative.

Under the CPRA (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.),*fn1 " 'every person' has a right to inspect any public record (§ 6253, subd. (a)), for any purpose (§ 6257.5), subject to certain exemptions . . . ." (County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Axelrad) (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 819, 825 (Axelrad).) The CPRA contains a number of exemptions, including one which excepts from disclosure records "pertaining to pending litigation to which the public agency is a party . . . until the pending litigation . . . has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled." (§ 6254, subd. (b).)

By case law, the CPRA is broadly construed. Exemptions, however, are narrowly construed. Consistent with this construction, the trial court here ruled the pending litigation exemption did not apply to billing and payment records reflecting the amount of money the County of Los Angeles (County) had paid in attorney fees to defend itself against a pending civil rights action.

The County claims the trial court erred in construing the statutory exemption and ordering disclosure of the records in question. We reject the contention and deny the County's petition for a writ of mandate.


Real party in interest Cynthia Anderson-Barker is an attorney. She works in the same office as attorneys David Mann and Donald Cook, who are her attorneys of record in this CPRA action both in the trial court and in this court. Attorneys Mann and Cook also represent the plaintiffs in a civil rights action that has been pending in the Los Angeles County Superior Court since 1999 - Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (BC207136) (the Venegas action).*fn2 The Venegas action has been the subject of numerous appellate proceedings. (See Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (Aug. 23, 2011, B218948) [nonpub. opn.]; Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (2007) 153 Cal.App.4th 1230; Venegas v. County of Los Angeles (2004) 32 Cal.4th 820.) In October 2011, after the most recent appellate decision, the case was returned to the trial court for trial.

One month later, in November 2011, Anderson-Barker filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court, seeking disclosure under the CPRA of certain records relating to the Venegas action, records that the County had refused to disclose in response to a formal CPRA request.*fn3 (See § 6259, subd. (a) [member of public may challenge denial of CPRA request by filing writ petition in the superior court].) Specifically, she sought (1) all invoices or other requests for payment submitted to the County by any law firm representing it in the Venegas action, (2) each such law firm's time records for the Venegas action, and (3) canceled checks and other writings reflecting payment by the County to such law firms.

In its answer to the mandate petition, the County maintained that the documents in question were not subject disclosure because, among other things, (1) they were attorney-client communications, (2) they were attorney work product, and (3) they were exempt from disclosure under the CPRA's "pending litigation" exemption in section 6254, subdivision (b).

Before the hearing on the matter, the trial court issued a tentative decision which became the ruling of the court after the parties submitted on the tentative without substantive argument. The trial court ruled the documents in question were not attorney-client privileged communications, but they did contain some attorney work product. Thus, attorney time records reflect legal research performed, as well as the thought processes and impressions of counsel. The court ruled that the information should be redacted "to show [only] the information that is not work product - the hours worked, the identity of the person performing the work, and the amount charged."

With respect to the pending litigation exemption, and citing Fairley v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 1414 (Fairley), the trial court ruled the exemption applied only to "records specifically prepared for use in litigation." Because the documents in question were prepared "in connection with [the Venegas] case, but not specifically for use in that case," the exemption did not apply.

The County filed a writ petition with this court challenging the trial court's ruling. (See ยง 6259, subd. (c) [trial court order directing disclosure or upholding refusal to disclose under the CPRA is not appealable, "but shall be immediately reviewable by petition to the appellate court"]; Powers v. City of Richmond (1995) 10 Cal.4th 85, 89 ["a petition for extraordinary writ [is] the exclusive mode of appellate review in CPRA actions"].) The County does not challenge the trial court's ruling with respect to the attorney-client and work product privileges. It ...

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