The Washington State Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s decision that led to the highest ever penalty against the state for violations of Washington’s Public Records Act.
In 2011 Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frederick Fleming ordered the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to pay $650,000 to Amber Wright of Elma. It was the highest amount in state history for violating our state’s law about handing over public records. Wright asked for records related to a lawsuit against the state for allegedly failing to protect her against her abusive father.
“The Court finds that there was an obstruction of justice, that the obstruction is clear, and that it insults the citizens for a government entity to proceed as DSHS proceeded in this matter,” wrote Judge Fleming at the time.
The state appealed the decision and prevailed. The Appeals Court ruled that some of the records in question were never specifically requested by Wright, so it would not make legal sense to punish DSHS for not providing them.
“We reverse the trial court’s final order finding that DSHS violated the PRA (Public Records Act) and the trial court’s award of attorney fees, costs, and penalties to Wright,” wrote the Court of Appeals.
“The Court of Appeals agreed that our interpretation of the Public Records Act (PRA) is correct,” said Kristal Wiitala, DSHS Public Records/Privacy Officer. “We did not break the law. DSHS strong believes in compliance with the PRA.”
Amber Wright’s attorney in both the initial failure to protect case and the public records case, David P. Moody, says the Appeals Court decision is not the end of the road. They plan to appeal.
“The Court of Appeals got this one wrong. As the trial court made very clear – even children are entitled to public records. It is astounding that a child-victim of rape would not be able to obtain her very own recorded statement from DSHS. We will appeal to the Supreme Court. I am confident that our State Supreme Court will get this one right,” said Moody.