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State Department of Public Health v. Superior Court (Center for Investigative Reporting)

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Sacramento

September 18, 2013

STATE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH, Petitioner,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Respondent CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING, Real Party in Interest

ORIGINAL PROCEEDING; petition for extraordinary writ of mandate, Super. Ct. No. 34-2012-80001044 Timothy M. Frawley, Judge. Peremptory writ issued.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Julie Weng-Gutierrez, Assistant Attorney General, Niromi W. Pfeiffer and Grant Lien, Deputy Attorneys General, for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

Davis Wright Tremaine, Duffy Carolan and Jeff Glasser for Real Party in Interest.

BUTZ, J.

This is an action under the California Public Records Act (PRA) (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.). Pursuant to the PRA, an investigative news organization requested citations for patient care violations that the State Department of Public Health (Public Health) issued to state facilities housing mentally ill and developmentally disabled patients. These citations were issued under California’s Long-Term Care, Health, Safety, and Security Act of 1973 (hereinafter, Long-Term Care Act) (Health & Saf. Code, § 1417 et seq.).

Long-Term Care Act citations are publicly accessible in certain contexts, including through a PRA request. However, another statutory scheme, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 5000 et seq.) and companion statutes in the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act (id., § 4500 et seq.), renders mental health records, and information obtained in the course of providing such services, confidential (id., §§ 5328, 5328.15, 4514).[1]

Pursuant to the Lanterman Act, Public Health redacted from the citations it provided the news organization essentially all the facts concerning the nature of the violations.

In this writ review proceeding (Gov. Code, § 6259, subd. (c)), we harmonize the Long-Term Care Act’s public accessibility provisions with the Lanterman Act’s confidentiality provisions in the context of this PRA request. We conclude, among other things, that Public Health must not redact from the citations provided under the PRA the particular description of what the nature of the violation was, a description required by the Long-Term Care Act. Consequently, we issue a peremptory writ of mandate along these lines.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In May 2011, the Center for Investigative Reporting (News Center), an investigative news organization, requested under the PRA (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) copies of citations for violations of patient care standards that Public Health issued to seven of the state’s residential facilities for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled (occasionally hereinafter, state facilities; these facilities are operated by the State Department of Developmental Services, not a party herein).[2] News Center sought citations issued from January 1, 2002, to the present.

Public Health responded to News Center’s PRA request by stating that Public Health was required to maintain citations for only four years, and that any citations produced would be redacted pursuant to the confidentiality provisions set forth in the Lanterman Act, applying to the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.

Public Health produced 55 extensively redacted citations for the years 2007 to 2011. Public Health removed essentially all factual information about the nature of the violation from the citations, so that they stated generically along the following lines: “The facility failed to keep Client 1 free from harm”; “The facility... failed to ensure clients’ rights to be free from the harm of abuse”; “The facility... failed to treat clients with dignity and respect”; or simply, “The facility failed to: [remainder redacted].”

News Center filed a complaint for declaratory relief and petitioned the trial court for a writ of mandate to obtain the PRA-requested citations in unredacted or minimally redacted form. News Center relied principally on the Long-Term Care Act (Health & Saf. Code, § 1417 et seq.), the statutory scheme under which Public Health issued the citations. The Long-Term Care Act provides that its citations (for found violations) are publicly available (id., § 1429; see id., §§ 1423, 1424), and that its writings are open to public inspection pursuant to the PRA, except for the names of individuals other than certain investigating officers (id., § 1439).

In ruling on News Center’s complaint and writ petition, the trial court concluded that (1) “[w]here mental health records are involved [(i.e., the records at issue here)], there is an irreconcilable conflict between the Lanterman Act’s confidentiality provisions and the Long-Term Care Act’s accessibility provisions”; (2) “[t]he statutes cannot be harmonized by disclosing the citation denuded of all the underlying factual information giving rise to the citation”; and (3) “the Legislature intended the accessibility provisions of the Long-Term Care Act to prevail as a special exception to the Lanterman Act’s general rule of confidentiality.” Consequently, the trial court issued a writ of mandate (and corresponding declaratory relief) directing Public Health to produce the citations requested by News Center “without redaction, except as to the names of individuals other than investigating officers....”[3]

Public Health filed a petition for extraordinary writ of mandate with us, seeking review of the trial court’s decision. (Gov. Code, § 6259, subd. (c).)[4] We issued an alternative writ and stayed further proceedings.[5]

DISCUSSION

I. Issue and Standard of Review

New Center’s PRA request for the Public Health citations for the state facilities implicates three statutes: the PRA (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.); the Long-Term Care Act (Health & Saf. Code, § 1417 et seq.); and the Lanterman Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, §§ 5000 et seq., 4500 et seq.).[6]

The issue is, in the context of a PRA request for citations issued by Public Health to state facilities housing the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled: Can the public accessibility provisions for citations issued under the Long-Term Care Act be reconciled with the confidentiality provisions of the Lanterman Act, and, if so, how?

The PRA provides for the inspection of public records maintained by state and local government agencies to fulfill the “fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state” to have access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business. (Gov. Code, § 6250.) The PRA’s general policy is to favor disclosure; a claim of nondisclosure must be found in a specific exemption enumerated in that act. (Cook v. Craig (1976) 55 Cal.App.3d 773, 781; Gov. Code, § 6253.) The PRA exemption at issue here masks “[r]ecords, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to... state law... [the state law here being the Lanterman Act confidentiality provisions].” (Gov. Code, § 6254, subd. (k).) The Long-Term Care Act, however, makes its citations publicly accessible via statutory provisions on posting, requesting, and the PRA. (See Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1423, 1424, 1429, 1439.)

As for any reconciliation between the Long-Term Care Act’s public accessibility provisions and the Lanterman Act’s confidentiality provisions, “[t]he issue presented is essentially one of statutory construction. When engaged in statutory construction, our aim is ‘to ascertain the intent of the enacting legislative body so that we may adopt the construction that best effectuates the purpose of the law.’ [Citations.] ‘We first examine the words themselves because the statutory language is generally the most reliable indicator of legislative intent.’ [Citation.] When construing the interaction of two potentially conflicting statutes, we strive to effectuate the purpose of each by harmonizing them, if possible, in a way that allows both to be given effect.” (Chavez v. City of Los Angeles (2010) 47 Cal.4th 970, 986 (Chavez).)

We turn now to the statutory purposes and relevant language of the Long-Term Care Act and the Lanterman Act.

II. The Statutory Purposes and Relevant Language of the Long-Term Care Act and the Lanterman Act

A. The Long-Term Care Act

The Long-Term Care Act (Health & Saf. Code, § 1417 et seq.), which applies to the state facilities for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled at issue here, also applies to the much more populous skilled nursing facilities and convalescent hospitals in the state (and essentially to all long-term health care facilities in the state). (See Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1418, 1250.)

The Long-Term Care Act establishes an inspection, citation, reporting, and civil (monetary) penalty system that is designed to create a less cumbersome, less draconian, and more preventative enforcement method than the system of suspending and revoking health facility licenses. (See Health & Saf. Code, div. 2, chs. 2, 2.4, 3; Health & Saf. Code, § 1417.1; California Assn. of Health Facilities v. Department of Health Services (1997) 16 Cal.4th 284, 294-295 (California Assn.); Kizer v. County of San Mateo (1991) 53 Cal.3d 139, 150 (Kizer).) This act is designed to “ensure that long-term health care facilities provide the highest level of care possible, ” by ensuring that patient care standards are met. (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1422, subd. (a), 1417.1.) The Long-Term Care Act applies to some “of the most vulnerable segments of our population”—for example, “ ‘nursing care patients... who are already disabled by age and infirmity’ ” and, as here, the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. (California Assn., supra, 19 Cal.4th at p. 295; Kizer, supra, 53 Cal.3d at p. 150.) As a remedial statute, the Long-Term Care Act’s citation provisions are to be liberally construed on behalf of the class of persons they are designed to protect. (California Assn., supra, at p. 295; Health & Saf. Code, § 1424.)

Public Health (formerly the Department of Health Services) administers and enforces the Long-Term Care Act. (California Assn., supra, 16 Cal.4th at p. 288.) The Long-Term Care Act contains provisions that make citations publicly available, except for the names of individuals other than specified investigating officers. (See Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1423, subd. (a)(2), 1424, 1429, 1439.) Public availability of the citations is accomplished primarily through prominent posting at the facility (for the more serious class A and class AA citations), public request, and PRA request. (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1429, 1439.) In this way, the Long-Term Care Act affords the public an oversight role concerning long-term health care facilities. We note, however, that the media, such as News Center, has no greater right of access to public records pursuant to a PRA request than the general public. (Dixon v. Superior Court (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 1271, 1279.)

The two most pertinent provisions of the Long-Term Care Act covering the nature of citation information available to the public are sections 1423 and 1424. (Health & Saf. Code, §§ 1423, 1424.)

Health and Safety Code section 1423, subdivision (a)(2) specifies, as relevant, that “[e]ach citation shall be in writing and shall describe with particularity the nature of the violation, including a reference to the statutory provision, standard, rule or regulation alleged to have been violated, the particular place or area of the facility in which it occurred, as well as the amount of any proposed assessment of a civil penalty. The name of any patient jeopardized by the alleged violation shall not be specified in the citation in order to protect the privacy of the patient.... The citation shall fix the earliest feasible time for the elimination of the condition constituting the alleged violation, when appropriate.”

And Health and Safety Code section 1424, subdivisions (a) and (b) add, as relevant:

“Citations issued pursuant to [the Long-Term Care Act] shall be classified according to the nature of the violation and shall indicate the classification on the face thereof [(i.e., class ‘B’, class ‘A’, and class ‘AA’ [in increasing severity])].

“(a) In determining the amount of the civil penalty, all relevant facts shall be considered, including, but not limited to, the following:

“(1) The probability and severity of the risk that the violation presents to the patient’s or resident’s mental and physical condition.

“(2) The patient’s or resident’s medical condition.

“(3) The patient’s or resident’s mental condition and his or her history of ...


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