February 2017 Newsletter – School Districts
Court of Appeal Reviews Reasonable Fees for Public Records Requests
A recent Appellate Court opinion helps clarify what fees are reasonable with respect to public records requests. In California Public Records Research Inc. v. County of Yolo (2016 Cal.App Lexis 867), the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal on summary judgment of claims that the fees of $10.00 for the first copy and $2.00 for every copy of public records charged by the County of Yolo were unreasonable. (During the course of the case, the County lowered its cost for the first page to $7.35 based on the retirement of senior employees. The calculation technique remained consistent.)
The plaintiffs, California Public Records Research, Inc. (CPPR), brought suit claiming that 1) the County had a duty to limit costs for documents; 2) the Recorder’s Office abused its discretion in setting fees for copies; 3) the County violated a mandate not to impose special taxes without the vote of the electorate under Proposition 26; 4) the County was negligent in setting fees; 5) CPRR was entitled to a declaration of parties’ rights under the Government Code and a declaration that the Recorder’s direct and indirect costs to produce copies do not exceed 10 cents a page; and 6) a cause of action for money had and received on behalf of the same putative class. Additional claims were brought for attorney’s fees, as CPRR argued that the County had changed its fees because of the lawsuit.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the County, finding there was insufficient evidence to sustain the claims CPRR asserted or to award attorney’s fees. CPRR appealed both decisions.
The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s findings and affirmed both judgments. In its affirmation, the Court of Appeal first noted that Government Code section 27366 allowed the County to set fees for copies “in the amount necessary to recover the direct and indirect costs of providing the product or services.” The Appellate Court then relied upon dictionary definitions existing at the time of the hearing for the terms “direct” and “indirect costs.” The Court further noted that the legislature used limiting language in other code sections involving fee setting, but chose not to in section 27366. The Appellate Court further found that the statutory language was intended to provide the County with discretion in fee setting. Finally, the Appellate Court found that there was no ministerial duty of the County to limit copy fees under either statute or California common law and that CPRR failed to provide sufficient evidence to show that discretion had been abused.
The Appellate Court specifically found that significant evidence had been presented at the trial court regarding the sound accounting methodology the County used in calculating its costs, both direct and indirect, including “individual staff salaries, office overhead, services and supplies, management and supervision, information technology support, cost studies and computer equipment.” The Court further reasoned that because the staff billing rates were included in the copy fees, both direct and indirect costs were also contained in the copy fees. As a result, the Appellate Court confirmed the trial court’s determination that CPRR had failed to establish the violation of any mandatory duty.
The impact of this decision is that public entities have considerable discretion in the fees and costs charged for public records requests, so long as the entity can adequately demonstrate that the methodology it uses relies upon sound accounting principles, takes into consideration both direct and indirect costs, and can sufficiently identify the cost components used to calculate the rates it charges.
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