Many public agencies are faced with Public Records Act (“PRA”) requests for their attorneys’ billing statements. Up until recently, there was doubt whether those statements were required to be produced following the redaction of any material that might reveal the opinions, advice, or case strategy of agency counsel.
In County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors v. Superior Court, published April 13, 2015, the California Court of Appeals ruled that attorney billing statements are protected by the attorney-client privilege. If this case is upheld, all attorney billing statements that are confidential and arise out of the attorney’s representation will be exempt from disclosure under the PRA. Importantly, this case’s holding would allow such billing records to be withheld even if they are not related to “pending” litigation. A copy of the case is available here.
The facts of the case are familiar to most agencies. The ACLU, seeking to show that that the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors was improperly spending public money on legal representation, requested copies of all billing statements related to several lawsuits filed against the County. The County refused to produce many of the statements because they were exempt from disclosure under the PRA and the attorney-client privilege. The ACLU disagreed, and filed a lawsuit to compel the statements’ disclosure.
The ACLU argued that the statements were not privileged because they did not discuss any of the attorneys’ legal opinions or advice. The Court disagreed. The Court held that all confidential communications between an attorney and client, and related to the attorney’s representation, were privileged – regardless of content. Since attorney billing statements meet both of these requirements, they are exempt from the PRA.
There is a strong chance that this case will be challenged in the California Supreme Court. If appealed, the case is not controlling. Contact legal counsel to determine the impact that this case could have on any Public Records Act requests received by your agency.
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