If you make requests of the City of Los Angeles under the California Public Records Act you will have learned by now that they fail to comply in almost every possible way. They delay access to records, they wrongfully withhold records as exempt, they fail to respond to requests at all, they say that there are no responsive records when in fact there are, they manipulate requesters into asking for far less than they have a right to by wrongly citing authorities, they insist on printing electronic records onto paper and then charge for copies, and so on and on and on. It’s a real nightmare.
Some of the City’s shenanigans are due to the fact that the state legislature, in its wisdom, has made judicial action the only means of enforcing the CPRA. The City, probably with reason, assumes that most requesters don’t have the resources or the tenacity to follow through with a lawsuit, so the expected consequences for their abject noncompliance are pretty minimal. And that may be an accurate assessment, it’s hard to tell because I don’t have access to all the data.
But not having access to all doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get access to some, so I have been investigating CPRA suits against the City of Los Angeles. I first started thinking about this matter in 2015 but was at that time told by Deputy City Attorney Mike Dundas1 that the City had no way of listing CPRA suits against it. But after all that nonsense happened in San Diego recently, what with their City Attorney,2 Mara Elliot, tricking Senator Ben Hueso into introducing his appalling and since-withdrawn CPRA-gutting SB 615 and then some people got a spreadsheet showing how much the City of San Diego had spent on CPRA suits since 2010.
So I thought I’d ask Mike Dundas again and what do you know!? He came through and also informed me that the City Attorney3 had assigned a cause code to CPRA suits in 2016 so that it was now possible to track them individually.4 And then, kablooie! He produced this list of ten closed cases with payouts since 2016!5 And then later he told me that there was this one other closed case that didn’t involve a payout since the City was dismissed from it on a motion.6 And according to him he will be producing7 a list of the currently open cases.8
And just the bare numbers here are really interesting, but not a good look for the City of Los Angeles. Since 2016 eleven CPRA cases against the City have been disposed of. The City went to trial on two of these and lost, paying a total of $558,690.57 to petitioners’ lawyers. The City unfavorably settled eight of them before trial, paying a total of $104,032 to petitioners’ lawyers. And the City got itself dismissed from one before trial, but only because the petitioner mistakenly filed the case in federal court.
I obtained copies of all ten of the properly filed petitions, and you can find them here on the Archive and there are also links to the individual files below. From a practical point of view, those eight cases that the City settled without going to trial are the most interesting of all. First of all, they were all avoidable. None of them hinged on any subtle interpretations of the statute. If the City had just followed the explicit requirements of the law none of them would have been brought in the first place.
I describe each of them briefly below, by the way. The City has really come to rely on not being sued, and I don’t think we have any hope at all of improving their compliance without a lot more petitions being filed. It’s my hope that these statistics along with access to these cases will encourage more lawyers to get involved in suing the City over CPRA violations. It really looks like there’s some money to be made.
But, much, much more importantly, it looks like it might be not only practically possible, not only morally desirable, but also economically feasible to get the damn City of Los Angeles to just comply with the damn CPRA in some kind of predictable way. The money they spend settling these cases could easily fund a Citywide CPRA coordinator and another staff member just to keep all the City departments on track so that we get access to our records and the City avoids an endless parade of these entirely avoidable suits.
☆ BC719162 Brown v City of LA — On June 18, 2018 Michael Brown sent a request for records to Rec and Parks and also the City Attorney. The City Attorney in the person of DCA Strefan Fauble replied on July 2, 2018 that they did not have responsive records, meaning that the office of the City Attorney itself did not have records. Brown warned the City on July 17, 2018 that they were in violation. On August 23, 2018 he filed this suit. On February 28, 2019 the City of Los Angeles paid him $40,000 to settle.
The public records act very clearly states that when an agency receives a request for records various obligations are created. There’s nothing at all in the law that requires the requester to figure out which office the request ought to be sent to. And yet the City of Los Angeles acts as if this is the requester’s responsibility. Many times they won’t even help figure out where to send a request. It’s exceedingly notable that this petition calls them out on that behavior.
Second, note that it was filed only two months after the request was sent and the City paid out on it. It’s routine for the City to take many more than two months to handle requests, even to respond to them. This case strongly suggests that we9 ought to file more petitions and far sooner than we maybe have been. It won’t take many payouts like this one to get some really negative publicity for the City.
☆ BS159845 Anderson Barker v City of LA — On December 15, 2015 Cynthia Anderson-Barker sent a request for records to both the City Clerk and LADOT. The Clerk told her that they had no responsive records, as above meaning that the Office of the City Clerk itself did not have any responsive records. LADOT did not respond. Anderson-Barker filed this petition on January 27, 2016, which is only 43 days after the request. On October 19, 2016 the court ruled for Anderson-Barker and at sometime after that the City settled the case with her for $20,000 and I assume the production of some records.
Again, we see the City being called out on its absolutely insupportable policy of requiring the requester to determine which City office requests ought to be directed to. And again we see the City being sued for nonresponsiveness very, very rapidly. There is almost certainly a valuable lesson here for the possibility of reforming the City’s illegal practices by filing a lot more petitions. For this particular case I have all the pleadings, and you can look at them here on Archive.Org.
☆ BS160550 Luk v City of LA — In November 2015 George Luk asked the LAPD for records pertaining to their investigations regarding the conditional use permit for his bar. They didn’t respond and didn’t provide the records. At the planning meeting over his CUP he found that they did indeed have a lot of responsive records. He alleges that their withholding of the records prejudiced his right to due process at the hearing. He filed this petition in February 2016 and in October 2016 the City paid him $6,250 to settle.
☆ BS162685 Austin v City of LA — On May 16, 2016 Ronald Austin asked the LAPD for some arrest information over the phone. They refused to accept his request and told him to email it to LAPD Discovery. They also wrongly told him that a subpoena would be required for some of the information he requested. Discovery put him off and put him off and he filed this complaint on June 6, 2016. This is only 21 days after he first made his request.
Part of his argument is that they had already sold the information he was seeking to a for-profit company which had posted it on the Internet albeit behind a paywall. On June 23, 2016, less than three weeks after he filed his petition, the City settled with him for $2,783. This is some badass stuff, given that the LAPD always takes longer than this to produce anything. They routinely take more than a freaking year. But paying requesters off at what comes out to more than $1,000 per week of delay might learn them to follow the law.
☆ BS163755 Muslim Advocates v City of LA — This is a really famous case. The City fought it vigorously for years and ended up paying Muslim Advocates $538,690.57 in legal fees in October 2018. You can read the details here. But this case is unrepresentative if the goal is to get the City to comply with routine requests.
☆ BS164485 First Amendment Coalition v City of LA — When Councilmember Tom Labonge left office it came out that he’d destroyed a bunch of his records. The First Amendment Coalition asked Herb Wesson to produce them and then sued when the City claimed that the records did not exist. In 2017 the City settled with FAC and paid them $20,000 in legal fees. Again, this case is probably unrepresentative because the cause of action is unusual, at least I hope it is.
☆ BS168349 Urban Wildlands Group v City of LA — In June 2016 the Urban Wildlands Group asked the City Department of Animal Services for some records. The City stalled and stalled and stalled and UWG filed suit in March 2017. The City paid them $9,999 to settle in December 2017.10 This is nine months of ignored request time until filing. That’s not at all unusual for the City.
☆ BS174024 Joung v City of LA
☆ BS174104 Joung v City of LA
☆ BS174105 Joung v City of LA — In May and June 2018 Hye Kyung Joung submitted three CPRA requests to Eric Garcetti and Herb Wesson. Garcetti’s office was on their usual bullshit, claiming that the requests were overbroad and unfocused and that they just weren’t going to fulfill them. They also claimed that some of them were directed to the wrong office. Wesson’s office handed over some records but didn’t hand over enough for the petitioner’s taste. Petitioner filed these three petitions on June 14 and June 20, 2018. The City settled all three of them for $25,000 in January 2019.
This is literally all CPRA cases closed out by the City since 2016. The City has not prevailed in a single one, and they’ve settled most of them. They only fought two, and neither of those had to do with their ignoring requests, or closing them out with a claim that the requester has to find the right place to submit them or that they were too broad.
I would certainly like it if the City of Los Angeles didn’t claim nonsense exemptions like they did in the two cases they fought here, but I would like it much, much, much more if they would just comply with the law and produce noncontroversial records in a timely manner. The moral of these ten stories, to me, is that the City will respond to petitions concerning that much more ordinary form of noncompliance by settling up.
The lesson, therefore, is that requesters need to file many, many more of these. If every time the City delays for months on end, doesn’t respond, closes requests because there are too many responsive records and then refuses to discuss, if every time they got sued and had to pay out another $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000, well, I don’t know if they’d stop doing it, but we’d have a powerful argument that they ought to be made to stop doing it. And that would be progress.
Image of Mike Feuer is ©2019 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and shares some common ancestry with this lil dude here.
- As you can probably tell we here at MK.Org really don’t put much faith in that old adage that if one has nothing good to say about someone one shouldn’t say anything, but as it happens we do have something good to say about Mike Dundas, so we’re (of course I mean I; not sure why
weI slipped into the royal first person plural there). Where was I? Oh, yes! Something good to say about Mike Dundas! The good thing about Mike Dundas is that he has not yet revealed himself to be as malicious and dishonest as his colleage Strefan Fauble. Keep up the great work, Mike! The people of Los Angeles are counting on you!
- Kind of cute how San Diego just has to have everything that we have in Los Angeles! San Diego to state legislature: “MOM! We want one too! Why does Los Angeles get to have all the good stuff?! NO FAIR!!” Note: I know it probably didn’t happen that way. Just let me have my fun, ok? The problem is that I type so fast that it’s like tailgating on the freeway. It takes like about a thousand words for me to shut up even after I notice that I have no idea what I’m talking about and hit the paragraph breaks.
- When I mention a City Attorney in an unqualified way it means the office of the City Attorney of Los Angeles.
- Which inspired me to ask him for a list of cause codes, which he graciously provided. Take this and use it to make CPRA requests of the City Attorney. You can now easily request a list of all cases with dispositions for each of these case types!
- That link is to a PDF I made from this original Excel file and here it is as a JPG if that’s more useful to you.
- This is Hezinger v. Everybody in sight, which is case number 2:18-cv-04969.
- Although he has stuff he’s been saying he’s going to hand over for more than a year now, or actually just keeping quiet about and not even saying he’s going to hand it over. So maybe this will go the same way although I don’t actually think it will. Stay tuned.
- One of which I already know because, as you probably already know also, I am the petitioner.
- We, the records requesters, of course.
- If I didn’t know better I’d say that the chosen amount has something to do with structuring, which is a crime.