Judge grants partial summary judgment in public records lawsuit against Langley

A 6-year-old Public Records Act case against the city of Langley is a step closer to being resolved.

A 6-year-old Public Records Act case against the city of Langley, which went to the Court of Appeals and back, is a step closer to being resolved.

Island County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Cliff filed a detailed, 14-page decision in South Whidbey resident Eric Hood’s lawsuit against the city. She granted Hood’s motion for partial summary judgment against the city, a win that could lead to a fine against the city or a settlement.

In addition, Cliff granted the city’s motion against Hood’s attorney, Bill Crittendon, for filing pleadings related to a city settlement offer in violation of court rules. He will have to pay attorney’s fees to cover the city’s cost of drafting documents to seal the records.

Hood, a former teacher, has made a career out of filing public records lawsuits against governmental entities large and small in the state. He says his motive is to illuminate how common it is for government to violate a law that’s fundamental to democracy, while others accuse him of being predatory and undermining the intent of the law.

In addition to this case, Hood has two other ongoing public records lawsuits against the city. None of the Langley officials originally involved with the cases are still with the city.

Hood’s 2016 lawsuit was related to a wide-ranging public records request he made related to former Mayor Fred McCarthy. While many issues were argued over the course of the lawsuit, a central issue turned out to be whether the city violated the law by not producing the mayor’s daily calendar records from the laptop computer he had used.

The city originally won the case in superior court when a former judge granted the city’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. Hood appealed and the Court of Appeals ruled that judge erred in granting summary judgment because issues of fact were unresolved.

Cliff’s decision describes how the city’s response to Hood’s request became complicated, with the former clerk saying she thought Hood had verbally narrowed the request and Hood denying this.

While this issue is unresolved, Cliff found that the city had fair notice from court filings in 2017 that Hood did not believe he had narrowed his request. 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 wrote that she found arguments related to the Court of Appeals 2021 decision in O’Dea v. City of Tacoma to be persuasive. In that case, the appeals court found that even if the city denies receiving a public records request, a request filed in the form of a public records lawsuit should have been treated as a regular public records request.

Cliff also denied Hood’s motion to compel the city to hire an attorney not associated with the risk pool and his motion to compel mediation.