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City of San Joses v. Clara County

Supreme Court of California

March 2, 2017

CITY OF SAN JOSE et al., Petitioners,
CLARA COUNTY, Respondent;

         Ct.App. 6 H039498

         Superior Court of Santa Clara County, No. 109CV150427 James P. Kleinberg Judge

          Richard Doyle, City Attorney, Nora Frimann, Assistant City Attorney, and Margo Laskowska, Deputy City Attorney, for Petitioners.

          Keith J. Bray, Joshua Rosen Daniels; Dannis Woliver Kelley, Sue Ann Salmon Evans and William B. Tunick for Education Legal Alliance of the California School Boards Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioners.

          Jennifer B. Henning for California State Association of Counties as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Petitioners.

          Best, Best & Krieger, Shawn D. Hagerty and Hong Dao Nguyen for League of California Cities, California Association of Sanitation Agencies and California Special Districts Association Amici Curiae on behalf of Petitioners.

          No appearance for Respondent.

          McManis Faulkner, James McManis, Matthew Schechter, Christine Peek, Tyler Atkinson and Jennifer Murakami for Real Party in Interest.

          Mastagni Holstedt, David E. Mastagni, Isaac S. Stevens and Jeffrey R.A. Edwards for Sacramento Police Officers' Association, Stockton Police Officers' Association, Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Sacramento County Law Enforcement Managers Association, San Bernardino County Public Attorneys Association, Deputy Sheriffs' Association of Alameda County, Statewide University Police Association, Sacramento Area Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters, Local 552, AFL-CIO, Palo Alto Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters, Local 1319, AFL-CIO, San Mateo County Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Rialto Professional Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters, Local 3688, AFL-CIO, Vallejo Police Officers' Association, Elk Grove Police Officers Association, Ontario Police Officers' Association, Placer County Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Federated University Police Officers' Association and Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers' Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

          Jack Cohen as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

          Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski, Karl Olson; Juan F. Cornejo; Jeffrey D Glasser; and James W. Ewert for California Newspaper Publishers Association, Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, McClatchy Newspapers, Inc., Hearst Corporation, First Amendment Coalition, Society of Professional Journalists, Californians Aware and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

          Michael T. Risher, Matthew T. Cagle, Christopher J. Conley; Peter Bibring, Peter Eliasberg; David Loy; and Jennifer Lynch for American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, Inc., American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Inc., American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial County, Inc., and Electronic Frontier Foundation as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest.

          Corrigan, J.

         Here, we hold that when a city employee uses a personal account to communicate about the conduct of public business, the writings may be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA or Act).[1] We overturn the contrary judgment of the Court of Appeal.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In June 2009, petitioner Ted Smith requested disclosure of 32 categories of public records from the City of San Jose, its redevelopment agency and the agency's executive director, along with certain other elected officials and their staffs.[2] The targeted documents concerned redevelopment efforts in downtown San Jose and included emails and text messages “sent or received on private electronic devices used by” the mayor, two city council members, and their staffs. The City disclosed communications made using City telephone numbers and email accounts but did not disclose communications made using the individuals' personal accounts.

         Smith sued for declaratory relief, arguing CPRA's definition of “public records” encompasses all communications about official business, regardless of how they are created, communicated, or stored. The City responded that messages communicated through personal accounts are not public records because they are not within the public entity's custody or control. The trial court granted summary judgment for Smith and ordered disclosure, but the Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate. At present, no documents from employees' personal accounts have been collected or disclosed.


         This case concerns how laws, originally designed to cover paper documents, apply to evolving methods of electronic communication. It requires recognition that, in today's environment, not all employment-related activity occurs during a conventional workday, or in an employer-maintained workplace.

         Enacted in 1968, CPRA declares that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” (§ 6250.) In 2004, voters made this principle part of our Constitution. A provision added by Proposition 59 states: “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and, therefore, ... the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(1).) Public access laws serve a crucial function. “Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. ‘Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.' ” (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 319, 328-329 (International Federation).)

         However, public access to information must sometimes yield to personal privacy interests. When enacting CPRA, the Legislature was mindful of the right to privacy (§ 6250), and set out multiple exemptions designed to protect that right. (Commission on Peace Officer Standards & Training v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 278, 288 (Commission on Peace Officer Standards); see § 6254.) Similarly, while the Constitution provides for public access, it does not supersede or modify existing privacy rights. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(3).)

         CPRA and the Constitution strike a careful balance between public access and personal privacy. This case concerns how that balance is served when documents concerning official business are created or stored outside the workplace. The issue is a narrow one: Are writings concerning the conduct of public business beyond CPRA's reach merely because they were sent or received using a nongovernmental account? Considering the statute's language and the important policy interests it serves, the answer is no. Employees' communications about official agency business may be subject to CPRA regardless of the type of account used in their preparation or transmission.

         A. Statutory Language, Broadly Construed, Supports Public Access

         CPRA establishes a basic rule requiring disclosure of public records upon request. (§ 6253.)[3] In general, it creates “a presumptive right of access to any record created or maintained by a public agency that relates in any way to the business of the public agency.” (Sander v. State Bar of California (2013) 58 Cal.4th 300, 323, italics added.) Every such record “must be disclosed unless a statutory exception is shown.” (Ibid.) Section 6254 sets out a variety of exemptions, “many of which are designed to protect individual privacy.” (International Federation, supra, 42 Cal.4th at p. 329.) The Act also includes a catchall provision exempting disclosure if “the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.” (§ 6255, subd. (a).)

         “When we interpret a statute, ‘[o]ur fundamental task... is to determine the Legislature's intent so as to effectuate the law's purpose. We first examine the statutory language, giving it a plain and commonsense meaning. We do not examine that language in isolation, but in the context of the statutory framework as a whole in order to determine its scope and purpose and to harmonize the various parts of the enactment. If the language is clear, courts must generally follow its plain meaning unless a literal interpretation would result in absurd consequences the Legislature did not intend. If the statutory language permits more than one reasonable interpretation, courts may consider other aids, such as the statute's purpose, legislative history, and public policy.' [Citation.] ‘Furthermore, we consider portions of a statute in the context of the entire statute ...

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