NORTHERN CALIFORNIA – An appellate court ruled Wednesday that a Glenn County publisher does not have to pay the legal fees of a school district he sued over a public records act request.
The Third Appellate District Court of Appeals overturned Glenn County Superior Court Judge Peter Twede's ruling that Tim Crews, publisher and editor of the Willows-based Sacramento Valley Mirror, pay the Willows Unified School District $56,595.50.
Crews told Lake County News on Wednesday that he felt vindicated but also very grateful for all the help he had in the fight, including amicus briefs from a number of large news organizations and open government advocacy groups.
“None of us goes into this business alone,” said Crews, noting that journalists stand on the shoulders of those who go before them.
The ruling is considered a victory for journalists like Crews who rely on the use of the California Public Records Act, the 45-year-old state law meant to ensure openness and transparency in government, in investigative reporting.
Twede had ruled that Crews should pay the district's legal fees because he made a “frivolous” 2009 public records act request for a year's worth of emails by the district superintendent.
Crews, on appeal, had argued that he actually had been the prevailing party in the case and that awarding such fees and costs would chill investigative journalism across the state.
While the appellate court didn't agree that Crews was the prevailing party, it disagreed with Twede's ruling that Crews' pursuit of thousands of emails was frivolous.
In March 2009, Crews made a public records act request for all emails to and from then-superintendent Steve Olmos during 2008.
It was part of an investigation by Crews into whether Olmos used public resources for improper uses, specifically, supporting the recall of former Glenn County Superintendent of Schools Arturo Barrera, according to court records.
The district eventually turned over 60,000 emails in PDF format, but withheld 3,200 of the documents, which it said were exempt from the California Public Records Act, the appellate court documents explain.
On April 28, 2009, the day the district had said it would begin turning over the documents to Crews, he filed a public records act petition in Glenn County Superior Court to compel production of the promised documents.
Crews had not received any documents by that time, although the documents would begin to be provided to him by the following week and would continue to be released on a rolling basis throughout the rest of 2009, according to case documents.
In response to Crews' petition, Twede reviewed the documents in camera and found the district had not improperly held any documents. Ninety-one pages of attachments were inadvertently left out and corrected once the district realized the error, the court documents state.
In November 2010, Twede denied Crews' public records act petition and ruled it was frivolous, and said the district was entitled to legal fees and costs based on a subdivision of the California Public Records Act that provides for an award of attorney fees and costs to a public agency in the event of a “clearly frivolous” case.
After an appeal to the Third Appellate Court of the denial of his petition, Crews' case returned to Glenn County Superior Court. The district sought more than $104,000 in fees, and was awarded just over $56,000.
Since that ruling, Crews has appealed the legal fees judgment, arguing that it could lead to his financial ruin and effectively shut down his newspaper, which has a small paid circulation in Glenn and surrounding counties.
Crews was not successful in obtaining documents in native format as was his request in his public records act petition, and the appellate court noted that public agencies “are ordinarily not entitled to attorney fees and costs from a requester who has failed to secure documents under the PRA.”
Ultimately, the three-judge panel ruled Crews’ efforts were not frivolous or meant to harass, and they overturned Twede's ruling that Crews pay the Willows Unified School District the legal fees and costs.
However, that doesn't mean Crews doesn't have a large legal bill already, as he's had to cover his own costs on appeal.
While he's had donated legal time and his attorneys have billed him below their normal hourly rates, he still has a May legal bill of more than $12,000. He said he hasn't tallied his total costs to date yet.
He's also continuing on with the aggressive use of the California Public Records Act for which he's become known.
Crews said he just submitted a public records act for Willows Unified's legal bills, as he wants to know what they've spent on his case.
“I bet it was far more than the $56,000 they were trying to get out of me,” he said.
Email Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.