Appeals Court rules in Langley PRA lawsuit

The appeals court sided with Langley about monetary penalties in a public records lawsuit

After eight years and two trips to the state Court of Appeals, a Public Records Act lawsuit against the city of Langley may finally be over.

On Monday, the Court of Appeals sided with Langley in a decision over monetary penalties in the lawsuit resident Eric Hood filed in 2016. At the same time, the appeals court denied the city’s request for sanction against Hood for filing a motion for reconsideration.

In the unpublished opinion, the appeals court states that it was not going to second-guess the penalty doled out by Island County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Cliff.

“Because we do not conduct piecemeal evaluations of such penalty factors and because, reviewed holistically, the trial court’s penalty determination in this matter plainly does not evince a manifest abuse of discretion, we affirm the superior court’s ruling,” the opinion states.

The lawsuit has a long, complex history. Hood, who has made a career out of public records lawsuits, filed the original complaint pro se in superior court, arguing that the city violated the law by not fully fulfilling his request for a former mayor’s journals, diaries, notebooks, personal calendars, notebooks and handwritten comments.

A former judge granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in 2017, but Hood appealed. The Appeals Court ruled in his favor on several issues, finding that there were unresolved issues of fact. The case was sent back to superior court.

Last year, Cliff heard the case and ruled in favor of Hood in just one area of the sprawling lawsuit. She found that the city had fair notice from court filings in 2017 that Hood did not believe he had narrowed his request for the former mayor’s calendar. At that point, the city had five days to respond to his un-narrowed request, but the city did not do that until 2019.

Cliff ordered the city to pay just $5 for each day the copies of the electronic calendars were withheld. Since it took 1,063 days to fulfill the request, the penalty amounted to $5,315. Cliff ordered the city to pay $30,700 in attorney’s fees, which was about half of the request.

Afterward, Hood asked Cliff to reconsider, arguing that the award should be increased to $100 a day because of the city’s “dishonesty” and that the days of penalties should be retroactive to the O’Dea v. city of Tacoma decision, which says a records request included in a legal complaint counts as a request under the Public Records Act.

The attorney representing Langley filed an opposition to the motion for reconsideration as well as a motion for sanctions against attorney Bill Crittenden for filing the “frivolous” argument, which she argued violated a court rule by rehashing arguments the judge already rejected.

Cliff rejected both arguments, which were repeated in the appeals court level. In the decision, the appeals court found that Cliff did not abuse her discretion. The opinion states that “the legislature has conferred considerable discretion to trial courts when determining Public Records Act penalties, because our Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that such a determination must be reviewed holistically for its overall reasonableness and that no one penalty factor should control appellate review of any such determination.”

Tuesday, Hood provided a response to the decision.

“In 2016, the City falsely told me it had given me all the records I requested. The City admitted it had lied by later giving me more responsive records. Three mayors and over a dozen council members employed multiple attorneys to spin this lie for nearly eight years. Yesterday, the appeals court upheld Judge Carolyn Cliff’s decision to minimally penalize the City for withholding records. The mayor and council now rest assured that the only consequence for lying, wasting everyone’s time, and spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to cover up lies and conceal public records is a gentle slap on the wrist,” he wrote.