Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Little Meta, But the Code Still Applies

City of L.A. v. Superior Court, No. B269525 (D2d7 Mar. 20, 2017)

Discovery in a public records act case is kind of confusing. After all, the whole purpose of the case is basically discovery. In this writ, the issue is whether, and to what extent, the Civil Discovery Act applies in cases brought under the Public Records Act.
Plaintiffs filed a PRA case against the City of LA seeking some data about the LAPD’s seizure of vehicles. As part of their case, Plaintiffs propounded discovery directed at whether the City actually possessed the records at issue, which the City resisted on the grounds that the Discovery Act doesn’t apply to PRA cases. The City refused to interpose any other objections, however, taking the position that the inapplicability of the Discovery Act meant that it had no obligation to otherwise respond according to the code. The trial court granted a motion to compel, ordered the city to respond to the requests as written without further objections, and awarded $5,500 in discovery sanctions. The city took a writ.

While the PRA doesn’t itself answer the question of whether discovery is available in a PRA case, the Code of Civil Procedure does. It’s not too controversial that a PRA action is a “special proceeding of a civil nature,” i.e., a statutory civil litigation that is something other than a suit at law or equity, aimed at a special form of relief. Sections 2017.010 & 2016.020(b) of the Code include both “civil actions” and “special proceedings of a civil nature” within the Discovery Act’s scope. So unless some more specific statute says otherwise, the Discovery Act applies to a PRA case. And on that point, the PRA itself is silent as to discovery. In the face of that silence, the Code of Civil Procedure controls. 

Which is not to say that the trial court doesn’t have the discretion to manage or limit discovery to issues germane to a PRA cases. In particular, discovery  seems appropriately limited to focus on the narrow kinds of issues that come up in PRA cases, such as the validity of exemptions or the veracity of an agency’s claims not to possess records. Thus, “[w]hen assessing motions to compel discovery (or motions seeking a protective order) in CPRA proceedings, the trial court has discretion to consider whether the petitioner has made an adequate showing that the discovery is likely to aid in the resolution of the particular issues presented in the proceeding.

That said, discovery sanctions weren’t warranted because the City’s position was substantially justified. The Discovery Act’s application to the PRA was an open question that was not the subject of any prior authority. Given the novelty of the issue, it wasn’t unjustified for the City to litigate it.

The trial court’s finding that further objections were waived also cannot stand. According to the court, “when a party challenges the applicability of the discovery act, it is not subject to waiver principles that are grounded in specific provisions of the act.”

So on remand, the trial court should entertain the City’s other objections as well as any considerations raised as to the court’s discretion to define an appropriate scope of discovery under the facts of the case.

Writ granted in part.

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