Silverman v. Ariz. Dep’t of Econ. Sec. – 6/3/2024

June 21, 2024

The Arizona Supreme Court defines the bona fide research exception under A.R.S. § 46-460(A), and holds the Arizona Department of Economic Security maintains discretion to deny qualifying requests that raise public policy concerns.

A journalist requested that the Arizona Department of Economic Security (“ADES”) disclose records about abuse, exploitation, or neglect of vulnerable adults. Those records are confidential under A.R.S. § 46-460(A). The journalist claimed the records should be released under an exception to the statute, which authorizes disclosure of records protected by § 46-460(A) to persons engaged in “bona fide research.” ADES denied the request.

The journalist sued, asking the superior court to compel production of the records under § 46-460(D)(8)’s “bona fide research” exception. ADES moved to dismiss. The court denied ADES’s motion to dismiss and sua sponte compelled ADES to disclose the records. ADES appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed the denial of ADES’s motion to dismiss, vacated the judgment compelling disclosure of the records, and remanded for further proceedings. The court held that, to qualify for the bona fide research exception to § 46-460(A), research must be for educational, administrative, or scientific purposes. Moreover, to qualify as a bona fide researcher, the researcher must provide detailed descriptions outlining the specific information needed, the research’s purpose and expected outcomes, and how the researcher will maintain the confidentiality of the records. However, it clarified that, even in instances in which the bona fide research exception applies, ADES still has the discretion to withhold the records, as long as such withholding is not arbitrary or capricious. Applying this standard, the court concluded that the record on appeal was insufficient to determine whether the journalist’s request qualified as bona fide research or to determine whether ADES acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying the journalist’s records request.

Both sides filed petitions for review. ADES challenged the court’s interpretation of the bona fide research exception, and the journalist challenged the court’s decision to remand to determine whether the exception had been met. The Supreme Court accepted review of both petitions.

First, the Court defined bona fide research under § 46-460(D)(8). It explained that qualifying bona fide research is investigation that is genuine and conducted in good faith and concerns reporting or stopping the abuse, exploitation, or neglect of vulnerable adults. It also must target topics, rather than particular people. Relatedly, the Court held that a researcher cannot obtain records that would necessarily reveal personal identities. However, it rejected ADES’s arguments that “research” must be limited to efforts to help ADES improve its operations or that the exception applies only to those with ADES research authorization. Likewise, it rejected the court of appeals’ definition of research as that limited to educational, administrative, or scientific purposes, and disagreed that a records request must forecast the expected outcomes of the research.   

Second, the Supreme Court affirmed that ADES retains discretion to deny a records request that satisfies the bona fide research exception, if the department concludes that producing the requested records would harm important public policy interests.

Finally, the Court confirmed that the denial of the motion to dismiss was appropriate and affirmed remand to the superior court to decide whether the journalist met the bona fide research exception and, if so, whether ADES abused its discretion in denying that request.

Vice Chief Justice Timmer authored the opinion, in which Justices Bolick, Lopez, Beene, Montgomery, King, and Pelander (Ret.) joined.

Posted by: BriAnne Illich Meeds