Judges rule in two public records lawsuits against Langley

Two judges recently made rulings in separate Public Records Act lawsuits against the city of Langley

Two judges recently made rulings in separate Public Records Act lawsuits against the city of Langley, one of which is seven years old and has gone to the state Court of Appeals and back.

There’s a chance that the 2016 case could return to the appeals court as the lawyer who brought the lawsuit isn’t satisfied with the penalty ruling and filed a motion for reconsideration, the first step toward an appeal. The judge ordered the city to pay just over $5,000, plus $30,000 in attorney’s fees.

The other case, however, was dismissed and no decision has been made about a possible appeal.

Eric Hood, a former teacher, filed the two lawsuits against the city in 2016 and 2021. He has made a career out of public records lawsuits against governmental entities large and small. He says his motive is to illuminate how common it is for government to violate a law that’s fundamental to democracy, while others accuse him of being predatory.

Hood is represented by attorney Bill Crittenden, an attorney who specializes in open government lawsuits.

Langley Mayor Scott Chaplin said he’s a strong proponent of open government and pointed out that the city hired a records specialist last year and will soon be filling the vacant clerk position, “which will further strengthen the city’s ability to timely and thoroughly respond to all requests from the public.”

“We have made tremendous progress and keeping up with the ever-increasing records reporting protocols is an ongoing process,” he said.

Chaplin also said that the city corrected an oversight in the city’s public records policy and formally adopted the state’s model fee structure last fall.

Hood and Crittenden, however, have questioned the city’s dedication to public records and even asked a judge to order training. In a court document, they argue that the city hasn’t learned its lesson, pointing to the city’s settlement of a public records complaint in October, paying Dewelle Ellsworth $10,475 after the city inappropriately tried to charge him per-page fees for an existing electronic document.

After years of legal battles generated a giant file of competing court documents in the 2016 case, Island County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Cliff recently ordered the city to pay just $5 for each day the public records — copies of a former mayor’s electronic calendars — were withheld. Since it took 1,063 days to fulfill the request, the penalty amounted to $5,315.

Under state law, a judge can consider “Yousoufian factors,” like the clarity of the request and the agency’s good faith, in assessing penalties.

In addition, Cliff ordered the city to pay $30,700 in attorney’s fees, which was about half of what Crittenden had requested. Cliff ruled that the city wasn’t liable for attorney’s fees racked up after the city made a settlement offer of approximately the same amount that Cliff ended up awarding Hood.

Hood’s lawsuit in the convoluted case included many different arguments of Public Records Act violations, but he only prevailed on the issue regarding calendars. In her decision, Cliff notes that the city’s current attorney located a March 1, 2016 email that Hood sent to former attorney Jeff Myers, making it clear that Hood wanted the daily calendars. That email counts as a public records request, but it went unfilled until Feb. 5, 2019.

In the motion for reconsideration, Crittenden asked the judge to reconsider her analysis and increase the award to $100 a day. He wrote that the judge should find that that the former city attorney knew on March 1, 2016, that Hood had not narrowed his PRA request but “continued to wrongfully and silently withhold the mayor’s calendars” and that “such agency dishonesty is inexcusable.”

In the other case, Hood made a public records request in January 2020 and the city responded in a timely manner, letting Hood know how much the records would cost. When he didn’t respond, his request went unfilled and he filed a lawsuit a year later.

In his ruling, Judge Christon Skinner ruled that Hood abandoned his request when he didn’t respond to the city’s request for fees.

Chaplin noted that public records lawsuits “take a huge toll in terms of staff time, morale and financial cost.”

“I hope that all persons submitting records requests in the future will come to the city as soon as possible if they feel that they are not getting the information they requested in a timely matter, as most requestors do,” he said.