When Should You Sue For PRA Debt Settlement?
- by Ayden
In Spokane v. Spokane County, the Washington State Supreme Court clarified two issues previously unresolved in Washington: that which constitutes a reasonable search for public records in response to such a PRA request and the parameters of permissible discovery in PRA cases. The Court’s opinion in this Fourth Amendment case is divided along strict and reasonable lines, with Chief Justice Rehnman dissenting. Rehnman wrote for the majority in an opinion joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. In an equally divided opinion, Justices Alito and Roberts reserved their opinion.
A county sheriff has the responsibility under Washington statutes to maintain a registry of vital records, including an index of arrest warrants, which are public record. Under the appropriate section of the Washington State Constitution and under the applicable statutes, he may conduct an inspection of any office, warehouse, or station of record to find out if someone has been convicted of a crime, has been committed to jail, has served time, has had a license suspended, has had a jury trial, or is on parole. A county sheriff who discovers information relevant to the performance of his duties under the Public Records Act may serve a subpoena duces tecum issued by the court requiring the individual to produce the records. If the individual contests the court order, either he can defend against the complaint or rely upon the failure of the server to show up, or he can move for summary judgment. A plaintiff in a PRA lawsuit cannot avoid discovery because of insufficient notice or inability to reasonably locate the relevant records, and the appropriate venue in Washington for such lawsuits is the county courthouse.
In essence, if the complaint has been properly filed, there is a strong case for finding the relevant records if the complaint is supported by the discovery that will ultimately result in judgment. However, if discovery does not support the complaint, then the plaintiff has no standing to move for summary judgment. Whether or not there is a basis for a PRA lawsuit will depend on whether there is a violation of any applicable rule of law, fraud, or some other reason.
The most likely scenario under which a plaintiff would be able to obtain sufficient evidence to file a PRA lawsuit would be if a member of the House or Senate knew about the existence of the probe and passed on the information to some influential person. Alternatively, a sitting state official could intentionally violate the law in order to benefit politically from the scandal. One example would be the dismissal of charges against former state governor Mark Duran, who was found to have misused state property, and for accepting a state retirement pay. The state was trying to save face at the time, but in the end it was discovered that the state pension board chair had received a six-figure salary from the pension fund when he signed off on the deal with the speaker. Thus, a lawsuit could have been possible if the public knew about the charges.
Another scenario would be an intentional misuse of records. If a member of the legislature was found to have taken a trip to the governor’s mansion to meet with private attorneys, or a commissioner was found to have discussed private records without the required authorization, a lawsuit can certainly be launched based on violations of the public’s right to access such records. The public can sue, as can anyone else involved in the case. The state, however, can try to defend its actions in court, or it might decide to settle the case out of court, in which case it will turn over the discovery to an independent commission which would then disseminate it amongst the parties involved. However, even if the settlement is reached outside of court, it can still go forward as a PRA lawsuit can be filed against the individual or his/her employer.
A PRA lawsuit can be initiated based on a complaint filed in state court, or even with the help of an attorney who specializes in such cases. In either case, it would have to point to some facts that show some intentional wrongness on the part of the individual or organization being sued. Therefore, it is very important that you get informed about your rights as soon as you are sued.
In Spokane v. Spokane County, the Washington State Supreme Court clarified two issues previously unresolved in Washington: that which constitutes a reasonable search for public records in response to such a PRA request and the parameters of permissible discovery in PRA cases. The Court’s opinion in this Fourth Amendment case is divided along strict and…
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