Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound v. City of Des Moines is a decision of the Washington State Supreme Court filed on January 22, 2009.
The opinion was written by Debra Stephens. Only one justice, Barbara Madsen, dissented.
The decision addresses the issue of what the time limit is to sue if a records requestor is not satisfied with an agency's response to a request under the Washington Public Records Act.
This case clarified that, under the law, a party has one year to sue. This ruling, Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound v. City of Des Moines, clarified when a response to a records request triggers the one-year clock.
- The Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound (RHAPS) is an association of rental housing owners.
- On November 11, 2004, the City of Des Monies adopted a "crime-free rental housing program" ordinance.
- Under the ordinance, rental property owners must pay an annual "crime-free housing endorsement fee" based upon the number of rental units each landlord owns, in addition to obtaining a business license. When the program was first adopted, the fee was set at $100.00 per unit, and the City later raised the yearly per-unit fee to $105.73.
- On July 20, 2005, the RHAPS asked for public records from the city, seeking 12 different categories of documents relating to the Program. The request letter asked for a "privilege log" for each record claimed to be exempt from disclosure.
- On July 21, 2005, the City sent an initial response letter acknowledging receipt of the RHAPS request, and estimating a response within two weeks.
- On August 17, 2005, the City provided RHAPS with 593 pages of documents relating to the Program. In a cover letter, the City refused to provide hundreds of pages of other documents from the city attorney's file, claiming various exemptions. The August 17, 2005 letter from the city attorney did not describe individual documents and did not provide a privilege exemption log.
- On October 7, 2005, the RHAPS sent a letter to the City complaining that some of the documents withheld by the City, such as treatises, articles, ordinances, and appellate court opinions, did not fall under PRA exemptions and demanded disclosure under the PRA.
- On October 12, 2005, the City responded in a letter to RHAPS stating:
- At this time, we believe that we have properly withheld exempt public records, stating the specific exemption in the terms required . . . . However, at your request, I will re-review the applicable statutes and caselaw (sic) concerning these exemptions; and the City Clerk will again request that City departments review their records, specifically searching for public records that you suspect we have failed to disclose. We will attempt to provide a complete response by November 18, 2005.
- The City did not respond to RHAPS by November 18, 2005.
- On November 23, 2005, the Des Moines city attorney sent a letter to RHAPS indicating:
- "Due to the demands that come with the end of the year, I will not be able to provide you with a complete response to your October 7, 2005 public disclosure request until December 9, 2005."
- The City did not respond to RHAPS by December 9, 2005.
- On January 25, 2006, RHAPS wrote to the City demanding results of the "re-review" of its July 20, 2005 first PRA request, saying:
- It is now January 25, 2006 -- more than two months past the City's original estimation of November 18, and nearly five months from when the documents should have been produced in the first instance. Unless we receive immediate assurance from the City that the responsive documents will be promptly produced, we will file suit under the PDA to compel production of the documents.
- On January 26, 2006, the city attorney responded, stating that all responsive records had been provided and the City had properly withheld exempt public records using the same specific exemptions language as stated in the City's August 17, 2005 letter. Also, on January 26, 2006, the city attorney sent a letter to RHAPS stating that the City had received RHAPS' second PRA request and would provide an appropriate response as soon as possible.
- On February 2, 2006, RHAPS sent a letter to the City stating that the City was in continuing violation of the PRA because the City must specifically use a privilege log to identify withheld documents and explain the grounds for withholding each specific document, and it had not yet done so, and mentioning other deficiencies in the record production of the City.
- On February 8, 2006, the city attorney called RHAPS' attorneys and through a teleconference the parties agreed that they would work cooperatively to avoid litigation. Shortly after the teleconference, RHAPS sent an e-mail to the city attorney requesting that the City e-mail any documents in electronic format directly to RHAPS' attorney. The city attorney replied via e-mail:
- "Will do. I appreciate your willingness to take a cooperative approach to resolving these issues."
- On February 10, 2006, in response to RHAPS's second PRA request of January 25, 2006, the City sent a letter to RHAPS containing the city of Des Moines 2006 budget appendix, adopted version, which it asserted had just been completed.
- On March 1, 2006, the City provided RHAPS with 386 pages of documents responsive to the January 25, 2006 second PRA request. Many of the documents appeared identical to those provided on August 17, 2005. n a cover letter, the City stated that it expected to provide by March 7, 2006 documents responsive to the January 25, 2006 second request by RHAPS.
- On March 8, 2006, the City provided an installment of documents to RHAPS's January 25, 2006 second PRA request. This installment included cost and revenue information for the period before RHAPS' July 20, 2005 first records request was made. The city attorney in the March 8 letter explained the lack of revenue information regarding the Program thusly:
- "All general revenues of the City of Des Moines are deposited into the general fund, regardless of which department generates the revenues. Expenditures by City departments are made from the general fund. This budgeting process does not track each dollar of revenue or cost by the "program" to which it is related.
- On March 21, 2006, the City sent a letter containing an installment of 26 documents to the RHAPS's January 25, 2006 second PRA request. These 26 documents included pleadings and other documents related to the City's prosecution of notices of infraction for failure to pay business license and/or Program charges.
- On March 22, 2006, RHAPS lawyers telephoned the city attorney and again asked for a detailed privilege log in accordance with the PRA.
- On April 14, 2006, the City sent a letter to RHAPS that attempted to provide a privilege log regarding the withheld documents relating to RHPS's first PRA request.
- On April 21, 2006, RHAPS responded, claiming that the City's privilege log was missing additional identification information regarding several documents such as authors, recipients, and other details, and that several documents were clearly not eligible for exemption under the PRA.
- On June 16, 2006, the City sent a response letter to the RHAPS supplying some of the requested identification information but refused to produce any of the withheld records.
- Shortly after receiving that letter, RHAPS's attorney called Des Moines City Attorney Linda Marousek and left a voicemail indicating that unless a number of the withheld documents were produced, the RHAPS would file suit against the City under the PRA.
- On June 20, 2006, Ms. Marousek responded by e-mail to the RHAPS attorney, suggesting the City was preparing to defend against litigation under the PRA by RHAPS.
- On November 1, 2006, Ms. Marousek left her position.
- On January 16, 2007, RHAPS filed suit in King County Superior Court, alleging that the City had improperly withheld public records.
- In early February 2007, Acting Des Moines City Attorney Richard Brown called RHAPS's attorney and requested a meeting to discuss the PRA litigation and the City's Program. On February 12, 2007, at that meeting Mr. Brown provided two documents to RHAPS reflecting total fees collected through the Program for 2005 ($284,600) and 2006 ($332,200). These two documents did not exist at the time of the July 25, 2005 first PRA request by RHAPS but had been recently created by Mr. Brown for settlement purposes.
- On February 26, 2007, RHAPS filed a third PRA request with the City regarding the Program.
- On February 27, 2007, the City sent a response letter to the RHAPS acknowledging receipt of the third PRA request and estimating a response within two weeks.
- On June 11, 2007, the City filed a motion to dismiss, contending that RHAPS failed to file its PRA suit within the one-year statute of limitations under RCW 42.56.550(6). The trial court entered an order granting the City's motion to dismiss.
- RHAPS appealed the decision to the appellate level courts in the state.