Private Email, Texts Conducting Public Business Subject to PRA

California Supreme Court held today that the California Public Records Act (PRA) law provides the public with a right to emails and other communications, such as text messages, regarding government business written or received by public officials and employees, regardless of whether the communication was done using a private account or device.

The case, City of San Jose v. Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, was decided unanimously. Justice Carol Corrigan, relying on a broad interpretation of the PRA, wrote, “In today’s environment, not all employment-related activity occurs during a conventional workday, or in an employer-maintained workplace.” A full copy of the Supreme Court opinion can be found by clicking here.

The case stemmed from a June 2009 request by petitioner, Ted Smith, of 32 categories of public records from the City of San Jose, its redevelopment agency and the agency‟s executive director, along with certain other elected officials and their staffs. The targeted documents concerned redevelopment efforts in downtown San Jose and included emails and text messages “sent or received on private electronic devices used by” the mayor, two city council members, and their staffs. The City disclosed communications made using City telephone numbers and email accounts but did not disclose communications made using the individuals‟ personal accounts. Smith sued for declaratory relief, arguing CPRA‟s definition of “public records” encompasses all communications about official business, regardless of how they are created, communicated, or stored. The City responded that messages communicated through personal accounts are not public records because they are not within the public entity‟s custody or control. The trial court granted summary judgment for Smith and ordered disclosure, but the Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate.

The court concluded that a writing prepared by a public employee or official conducting agency business is considered to be “prepared by” the agency within the meaning of the PRA, even if the writing is prepared using the employee or official’s personal account. 

Documents or communications that meet the PRA’s definition of a “public record” do not lose their status merely because they are located in a private account or device.

Influencing the decision was 2004's Proposition 59 amendment to the California Constitution, providing that statutes be broadly construed if they further the people’s right of access.