West v. Washington State Department of Natural Resources

In West, Division II of the Court of Appeals held that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) violated the Public Records Act by not responding to West’s public records requests within five business days.  After the DNR received the requests, the assistant public records officer acknowledged receipt of the request the same day.  However, the public records administrator wrote to West eleven days later, stating that the DNR was “in the research phase of the eight records requests” received and that many of the requests could be quite voluminous.  She also asked clarification questions about the request and stated that she required a response to these questions before she could provide a reasonable estimate of time for the DNR’s response. 

 When a public agency receives a public records request, it must within five business days (1) provide the record; (2) provide an internet address and link on the agency’s web site to the specific records requested; (3) acknowledge receipt of the request and provide a reasonable estimate of the time the agency will require to respond to the request; or (4) deny the public record request.  RCW 42.56.520.  In this case, although the DNR acknowledged receipt of the request within five business days, failure to include a reasonable estimate of the time to respond resulted in a violation of the PRA.  Despite the DNR’s arguments that the PRA does not provide for a stand-alone remedy for failure to strictly comply with the five-day requirement, the court remanded the case to the trial court to assess an attorney fee and penalty award for the violation.

 However, the court also held that the DNR did not violate the Public Records Act because it failed to disclose a document that was inadvertently lost prior to the time the request was made.

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