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The Appeals Court Highlights that a Request for Public Records Must Be Reasonable

As public officials may know, many areas of the Public Records Law are based on “reasonableness.” In a recent Appeals Court case, Friedman v. Division of Administrative Law Appeals, the Court took the opportunity to dive deeper into what constitutes a “reasonable” request for records under the law.  

  

In Friedman, the plaintiff sued in Superior Court alleging that the Bureau of Special Education Appeals failed to adequately respond to five of several public records requests. The Superior Court dismissed Friedman’s complaint after concluding that he had failed to reasonably describe the records that he was seeking. On appeal, the Appeals Court agreed that a public agency’s obligation to provide records is not triggered until it is “reasonably clear” what records the requester desires, emphasizing that the Public Records Law “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators….”  

  

Noting that there was no binding authority that interprets the requirement that the requested records be reasonably described, the Court looked to federal authority under the Freedom of Information Act, which contains a similar requirement. Based on this authority, the Court explained that the “reasonable description” requirement is met when the language of the request “would be sufficient [to enable] a professional employee of the agency who was familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.” The Court was clear that “broad sweeping requests lacking specificity are not sufficient.” For example, one of Friedman’s requests sought all e-mail messages between Bureau staff and a specified e-mail domain for a three-year period. The Court found that these documents could be identified with reasonable effort and, thus, the request was sufficient to warrant a response. However, another of Friedman’s requests sought text messages between Bureau staff and current and former employees of a specified law firm over a more than five-year period. The request did not identify names of the employees of the law firm or provide cell phone numbers. The Court found that, given all the effort the Bureau would have to expend to identify responsive documents, the request did not reasonably describe the records being sought, and that the Bureau’s obligation to respond was, therefore, not triggered.  

  

It is important to keep in mind, however, the difference between a vague request and an overly burdensome one. The Court in Friedman stated that a request is not “unreasonable” as a matter of law solely because providing a response is extremely burdensome. In such cases, public agencies have other mechanisms available for addressing the request, such as assessing fees, requesting an extension of time, or providing suggestions on how the requestor may narrow their request. In contrast, when a requester has not provided sufficient information for an agency to determine what records would be responsive, the agency should not hesitate to ask for clarification to avoid having to expend time and resources interpreting the request. The Court did not rule out, however, the possibility that the burden alone could be sufficient for the request to be unreasonable. 

 

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