In Mechling v. City of Monroe, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled that public agencies must provide nonexempt public records in electronic format, upon request, when "reasonable and feasible" to do so. Although the Court recognized that the Public Records Act does not expressly mandate that public agencies provide electronic records in electronic format, it ruled that the nonbinding model rules adopted by the Washington Attorney General, together with the Act's statutory mandate that agencies provide the fullest assistance to requesters, supported its conclusion that the records in question be provided in electronic format.
The Mechling decision arose following two separate public records requests by Meredith Mechling to the City of Monroe in 2005 seeking email messages to and from city council members discussing city business. Mechling requested that the City deliver the email messages to her in electronic format, but the City declined, stating:
Nondiscloseable information is redacted from the e-mails. We can't do this to the electronic format. The City has no obligation to provide you the documents in electronic format.
The City provided paper copies of the requested email messages to Mechling, for which Mechling was charged 15 cents per page as permitted by RCW 42.56.120. The total cost paid by Mechling was $76.20.
Months later, Mechling filed a lawsuit against the City alleging, among other things, that the City violated the Public Records Act by refusing to provide emails in electronic format. The trial court ruled in favor of the City, holding that "[t]he Public Records Act does not require the City to provide records in electronic format, and that the City may satisfy its obligations under the Act by providing paper copies of responsive records." Mechling appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals.
Despite recognizing that "no provision in the [Public Records Act] expressly requires a governmental agency to provide records in electronic form," the Court of Appeals was persuaded by Mechling's arguments and remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of whether it was "reasonable and feasible for the City" to provide electronic records in electronic format. The Court based its decision on the nonbinding Public Records Act model rules, which are published at Chapter 44.14 WAC and which suggest that electronic records be provided electronically, and the Act's statutory mandate that agencies provide the fullest assistance to requesters.
The Mechling decision continues the trend of Washington courts to expand the obligations of public entities under the Public Records Act. Unless the Mechling decision is reversed by the Washington Supreme Court or addressed by the Washington State Legislature, the best practice for public agencies is to provide electronic records in electronic format, when requested, if "reasonable and feasible."
To read the court's opinion, click here.