West Valley View, Inc. v. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office – 8/16/2007

August 28, 2007

Arizona Court Of Appeals Division One Holds That The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Violated The Arizona Public Records Law By Failing To Honor Newspaper’s Requests For Copies Of Future Press Releases.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office routinely distributes press releases to several media outlets via e-mail. The MCSO removed the West Valley View newspaper from its e-mail distribution list after the newspaper failed to cover the events mentioned in the press releases. After the MCSO refused to place the newspaper back on the e-mail distribution list, the newspaper requested copies of all future press releases pursuant to the Arizona Public Records Law, but MCSO ignored the requests. The newspaper then filed a special action pursuant to A.R.S. § 39-121.02(A).

The superior court accepted jurisdiction and held that, although the MCSO did not have to reinstate the newspaper on its e-mail distribution list, it had to provide copies for pickup or mailing on the same day that it distributes the press release. The superior court refused to award attorneys’ fees to the newspaper, however, because it was debatable whether the law applied to prospective records requests at the time of the MCSO’s refusals.

The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed that the MCSO had violated the Arizona Public Records Law. The MCSO did not dispute that the press releases were public records subject to disclosure. It did dispute, however, that the law applied prospectively to future press releases. The Court of Appeals disagreed, citing cases from other jurisdictions enforcing future requests under public records laws. It held that A.R.S. § 39-121.01(D) “does require the Sheriff to provide the newspaper with hard-copy printouts of its press releases the day they are mailed to other media.” The court rejected a construction of the statute that would “require the submission of separate seriatim requests for copies of each successive record when what the requester wants is within a clearly articulated and defined category of records that a public agency creates over time.” The court agreed with the superior court that “such a prospective request is the only feasible way for a media outlet with time-sensitive deadlines to . . . obtain press releases in a timely manner.” Moreover, the MCSO did not claim that promptly providing copies of the press releases would result in any hardship or undue burden.

Finally, the court reversed and remanded the superior court’s denial of attorneys’ fees under A.R.S. § 39-121.02(B). The court concluded that the MCSO’s refusals to respond to the newspaper’s requests and its “petty” reason for removing the newspaper from the e-mail distribution list were arbitrary or capricious, or in bad faith, thereby warranting an award of attorneys’ fees under the statute. The court also awarded the newspaper its attorneys’ fees on appeal pursuant to Rule 21(c) of the Arizona Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure.

Judge Johnsen authored the opinion; Judges Hall and Winthrop concurred.