Lake v. City of Phoenix – 10/29/2009

November 3, 2009

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Computer Metadata of Public Records That Are Stored in Electronic Format Is Subject to Disclosure Under Public Records Law.

A Phoenix police officer alleging employment discrimination submitted a public records request seeking his supervisor’s notes concerning the officer’s work performance.  After reviewing paper copies of documents produced, the officer requested metadata for certain documents.  Metadata contains information about electronic documents, such as creation dates and access dates.   The City of Phoenix denied the request, contending that metadata is not a public record. 

The police officer filed a special action in Superior Court pursuant to A.R.S. § 39-121.02.  After a hearing, the court denied jurisdiction.  Lake appealed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which among other actions upheld the City’s refusal to produce the metadata requested.  Lake appealed.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted review and reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision with respect to the metadata issue.  The Court did not answer whether a public body is required under the state public records laws to maintain documents in their native electronic format.  It held, however, that when a public record is maintained in an electronic format, the metadata embedded in that document also constitutes a public record and is thus subject to disclosure.

The Supreme Court further noted that the Superior Court had erred by denying jurisdiction of the statutory special action.  So long as the special action complied with applicable procedural rules, the Superior Court lacked discretion to deny jurisdiction and was required to decide the case on its merits.

Justice Bales wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court.