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Trial Court Finds School Districts May Not Charge for Copies Made to Redact Exempt Information from PRA Request

A voluminous document request under the Public Records Act (“PRA”) is a familiar problem for many public agencies.  This problem is complicated even further when the request covers documents containing a “mixed bag” of exempt and non-exempt material.  In this scenario, the agency must engage in the time consuming and expensive process of redacting the exempt material prior to disclosing the redacted materials in response to the PRA request.

Many agencies mitigate these costs by copying the records and redacting the copies, at which point the cost of copying the documents is passed on to the requester.  Some agencies may even charge an increased rate for copies requiring redaction because of the higher-salaried staff used to determine what portions of a record need to be redacted.  Both of these processes were challenged recently in the case of Pawooskar v. Redlands Unified School District, a case recently decided in San Bernardino County Superior Court.

Maia Pawooskar was concerned about the amount of money Redlands Unified School District (“District”) spent defending against her requests for special education services for her son.  To better quantify these costs, Ms. Pawooskar made a large PRA request encompassing over 11,000 pages of records.  The District told Ms. Pawooskar that she would be required to pay for copies at the rate of 25 cents per page—an increase over the District’s typical ten cents per page—because PRA requests were processed by higher-salaried “senior classified management staff.”

Ms. Pawooskar declined to pay the increased fee and requested to inspect the documents during the District’s business hours.  The District informed Ms. Pawooskar that nearly all of the records she requested needed to be copied in order to redact exempt material.  As a result, there were only 164 pages that she would be allowed to view for free.

Ms. Pawooskar disagreed, and filed suit to compel the District to a) allow her to inspect the documents free of charge, and b) obtain copies, regardless of whether redaction was required, at the typical rate of only ten cents per page.  Ms. Pawooskar argued that Government Code section 6253 subdivision (a) required that she be permitted to inspect—not copy—records during the District’s business hours, and that fees for inspection were not permitted.

The Court agreed.  In essence, the Court found that the District had improperly mixed two distinct concepts: the rules governing the public inspection of documents and the rules governing the public’s right to obtain copies of documents.  The Court determined that the public has a right to inspect all records during an agency’s business hours.  If those records require redaction, the agency must provide a redacted version of those records for public inspection, free-of-charge.  According to the Court, an agency may only charge for copies if those copies are requested in the PRA request.  It may not mandate that copies be made for the purpose of redaction.

The Court also found that the copy fee charged by the District was unwarranted.  The Court found that only the “direct costs” of duplication could be recovered under the PRA, and these costs included the cost of running the copy machine and the salary of the person operating it.  “Ancillary” costs related to the retrieval, inspection, and handling of the records could not be charged.  While the District used higher-salaried staff to fulfill PRA requests, the Court found that the only reason for using higher-salaried staff to perform copies would be if they were used to inspect each document to determine if it needed to be redacted.  Since inspection is a non-recoverable ancillary cost, it could not support the increased cost the District charged for PRA request copying.  As a result, the Court ordered the District to charge no more than ten cents per copy, which was the cost the District charged for the duplication of other documents, such as student records.

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