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State Dept. of Public Health v. Superior Court (Center for Investigation Reporting)

Supreme Court of California

February 19, 2015


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Superior Court of Sacramento County, No. 34-2012-80001044, Timothy M. Frawley, Judge. Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, No. C072325.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Kathleen Kenealy, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Gregory D. Brown, Deputy State Solicitor 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, Rochelle Wilcox; Jassy Vick Carolan, Duffy Carolan and Jeff Glasser for Real Party in Interest.

Arne Werchick for California Advocates for Nursing Reform, Inc., as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski, Karl Olson; Jeffrey D. Glasser; James W. Ewert; and Juan F. Cornejo for California Newspaper Publishers Association, Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., First Amendment Coalition and California Broadcasters Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

O'Melveny & Myers, Sabrina Heron Strong, Patricia K. Yew, Heather Silver and Alexander Slavin for Inner City Law Center as Amicus Curiae.

Cantil-Sakauye, C. J., Werdegar, Chin, Corrigan, Baxter, J.[*], and Gilbert, JJ.[**], concurring.


[342 P.3d 1219] [184 Cal.Rptr.3d 62] LIU, J.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (the Center) is a news organization investigating mistreatment of mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals in state-owned long-term health care facilities. It filed a California Public Records Act (Public Records Act; Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) request for copies of all the citations issued by the State Department

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of Public Health (DPH)--the agency charged with investigating, licensing, and disciplining long-term health care facilities--to the facilities the Center was investigating.

The Long-Term Care, Health, Safety, and Security Act of 1973 (the Long-Term Care Act; Health & Saf. Code, § 1417 et seq.) lays out in detail the information that must be included in citations issued by DPH and expressly states that the citations are public records, but that the names of the affected patients or residents must be redacted from the publicly available version of the citation. (See Health & Saf. Code, § § 1423, [184 Cal.Rptr.3d 63] 1424, 1429, 1439.) Yet DPH disclosed heavily redacted copies of the citations it had issued to the facilities in question, citing its obligation under another statute not to release confidential information obtained " in the course of providing services" to mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals. (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 5328; all subsequent statutory references are to the Welfare and Institutions Code unless otherwise indicated.)

The trial court determined that the Long-Term Care Act was the more specific and later-enacted statute and thus trumped section 5328. DPH sought writ relief, and the Court of Appeal issued a writ directing the trial court to vacate its judgment. In so doing, the Court of Appeal agreed with DPH, but only in part. It concluded that because both statutes are remedial statutes designed to protect the same vulnerable population, the two statutory schemes could be harmonized. The Court of Appeal did so by ordering DPH to disclose such information as the Court of Appeal deemed consistent with the common purpose of both statutes while permitting DPH to redact such information as the Court of Appeal deemed inconsistent with that common purpose.

We reverse and remand with instructions for the Court of Appeal to deny the petition. The trial court was correct: The Long-Term Care Act's provisions are the later-enacted provisions, and they announce with detail and specificity the information that must be included in DPH citations in the public record. Because it is both the more specific and the later-enacted statute, the Long-Term Care Act is properly construed as a limited exception to section 5328's general rule of patient and resident confidentiality. Accordingly, DPH citations issued under the Long-Term Care Act are public records and must be disclosed to the Center subject only to the specific redactions mandated by the Long-Term Care Act.

[342 P.3d 1220] I.

The Center is a nonprofit news organization involved in investigating and reporting on patient abuse in state-owned long-term care facilities operated by

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the State Department of Developmental Services for the benefit of mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals. The Center is engaged in " ongoing investigation into cases of patient abuse, injury and death at the State's largest developmental centers, the State's handling of the investigations and specifically that of the internal police force, called the Office of Protective Services, charged with protecting this vulnerable population."

In May of 2011, while investigating these matters, a staff reporter employed by the Center filed a written request, pursuant to the Public Records Act (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.), requesting copies of all citations issued by DPH since 2002 to the seven largest state-owned and state-operated treatment facilities. DPH issues such citations pursuant to a detailed statutory scheme set out in the Long-Term Care Act.

DPH's response was twofold. First, it informed the Center that DPH was required to maintain citations for only four years. Second, DPH told the Center that any recent responsive records would be " examined and redacted before release in accordance with Welfare and Institutions Code section 5328," which governs patient confidentiality at facilities providing designated services to developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients and residents. As explained in more detail below, section 5328 is part of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (§ 5000 et seq.); a parallel provision is included in the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act (§ 4500 et seq.). (See § 4514.) Like the [184 Cal.Rptr.3d 64] parties and the Court of Appeal, we refer to both acts collectively as the Lanterman Act. When we refer to section 5328, the reference applies equally to section 4514.

A month later, DPH produced 55 citations from the years 2007 through 2011. In DPH's own words, the records were " aggressively" redacted. In fact, the redacted citations contained scant information about the violations giving rise to each citation. A representative example is citation No. 15-1040-0003490-S. The citation is classified as an " AA" citation, meaning that the patient died as a direct and proximate result of the facility's offense. (Health & Saf. Code, § 1424, subd. (c).) The citation lists two general regulations that were violated: California Code of Regulations, title 22, section 76315, subdivision (a)(4), which requires each patient or resident to have an individual program plan, and California Code of Regulations, title 22, section 76525, subdivision (a)(20), which assures patients and residents the right " [t]o be free from harm, including unnecessary physical restraint or isolation, excessive medication, abuse or neglect." But the substance of the violation is then described as follows: " The facility failed to keep Client 1 free from harm by ... ." The remainder of the citation, comprising two and a half pages of text, is completely redacted.

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An unredacted copy of one citation the Center obtained from a confidential source shows the kind of information that DPH redacted. Citation No. 15-0788-0008629-F describes an incident in which one-third of the patients in one unit at the Sonoma Developmental Center sustained injuries consistent with being unnecessarily " Tasered." The citation describes the nature of the injuries sustained by some of the patients and the fact that the patients had limited or no ability to communicate verbally. By contrast, the redacted copy of the report says nothing more than that a violation of 42 Code of Federal Regulations, part 483.420(a)(5) (2014)--" Protection of clients' rights" --occurred.

The Center's legal counsel wrote a letter to DPH arguing that the redactions were not legally justified. DPH responded with an e-mail maintaining that the redactions were required by sections 4514 and 5328.15. The Center responded by filing a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court seeking an order that DPH disclose the redacted material pursuant to the Public Records Act.

The trial court said it was " called upon in this case to resolve an apparent conflict between the Lanterman Act's prohibition against disclosure of records obtained in the course of providing mental health or developmental [342 P.3d 1221] services, and the Long-Term Care Act's requirement that citations issued to long-term health care facilities be open to public inspection." It concluded that the two statutes could not be reconciled and that the Long-Term Care Act's mandate that DPH citations be made public with minimal redaction trumped the Lanterman Act's confidentiality provisions because the Long-Term Care Act was the more specific statute. DPH filed a petition for writ of extraordinary mandate.

The Court of Appeal acknowledged a conflict between the Long-Term Care Act and the Lanterman Act, but determined that the statutes could be harmonized. It observed that " the Lanterman Act and the Long-Term Care Act apply to the same population and seek the same purpose--to promote and protect the health and safety of mental health patients. But the two acts effectuate this common purpose from opposite directions. The Lanterman Act effectuates this purpose by ensuring the confidentiality of mental [184 Cal.Rptr.3d 65] health records--this encourages persons with mental problems to seek, accept and undergo treatment and to be open and candid in treatment. The Long-Term Care Act effectuates this purpose, as relevant here, by making citations for violations of patient care standards publicly accessible, so the public can oversee what is happening in these facilities." The " congruence of population and purpose, and this effectuation of purpose from opposite directions, creates a complementarity of method to effectuate the common purpose for this common population. In this way, these confidentiality and public accessibility provisions can be harmonized."

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