Agencies Cannot Initiate Lawsuits To Avoid Document Disclosure Under California’s Public Records Act

In Filarsky v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 2002 WL 1491878, the California Supreme Court considered whether a public agency could bring an action for declaratory judgment to determine its obligations under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).


Filarsky requested documents from the City of Manhattan Beach pursuant to CPRA. The city refused and Filarsky threatened a lawsuit. Instead, the city filed its own lawsuit, seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to disclose the records. The city prevailed, but before the trial court entered judgment, Filarsky filed a petition for writ of mandate. The Court of Appeal denied his petition and the Supreme Court granted review to decide only whether a public agency could properly initiate its own action to ascertain its obligations under CPRA.

Supreme Court’s Decision

CPRA, modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act, was enacted to give the public more access to information held by public agencies. Not all information held by public agencies, however, must be disclosed. If an agency refuses to provide access to the information requested, the individual requesting it can file a lawsuit to force the disclosure and receive swift assistance from the courts under expedited procedures set forth in CPRA. If he prevails, the agency must disclose the records and pay his court costs and attorney fees. If the agency prevails, the individual has to pay the agency’s court costs and attorney fees only if his case was “clearly frivolous.” CPRA makes no provision for the agency to file its own lawsuit.

Here, the city brought its own lawsuit under a general law permitting declaratory relief. (An action for declaratory relief is not a claim for money; it only seeks a declaration of the parties’ rights or responsibilities.) In this action, there are no expedited procedures and the prevailing party, regardless of who prevails, is entitled to an award of its court costs, but not its attorney fees. The city argued, however, that it could combine the provisions of CPRA and the general declaratory relief statutes to justify an award of attorney fees against Filarsky without showing that his request was frivolous.

The Court determined that allowing the city to do this would frustrate the legislature’s intent in passing CPRA. Allowing a public agency to circumvent CPRA by filing its own action for declaratory relief would greatly disadvantage an individual seeking disclosure by forcing him into litigation he might not have pursued on his own. It would allow the agency to delay disclosure and expose the individual to extended litigation and expense, with no possibility of recovering his own attorney fees. The Court rejected the city’s argument that CPRA and a general declaratory relief action could be combined to allow an award of attorney fees.

The Court held that the agency’s action should have been dismissed. It did not determine whether the city had to disclose the requested documents. It also did not address instances where one agency seeks to force another agency to disclose records or where an individual seeks to prevent the disclosure of records.