California Supreme Court Rules Personal Emails May Be Considered Public Records Subject to Disclosure Under the Public Records Act

In City of San Jose v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (2017) 2 Cal.5th 608, the City of San Jose argued that messages communicated through personal accounts of city employees were not public records subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a city employee’s emails about public business are not excluded from disclosure simply because they have been sent, received, or stored in a personal email account.

The Supreme Court rejected the City’s narrow interpretation that the statutory definition of “local agency” does not specifically include individual government officials or staff members—finding that nothing in the statutory language indicates the Legislature meant to exclude local agency employees from CPRA obligations.

The court similarly rejected the City’s argument that “public records” include only materials in the agency’s possession or directly accessible to the agency. Taking its cue from federal courts interpreting the Freedom of Information Act, it concluded that documents retained in an employee’s personal account are considered “retained by” the agency within the meaning of the CPRA.

The content of the specific records at issue was not a question before the court in this matter. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did acknowledge that resolving whether a writing relates in a substantive way to the conduct of the public’s business, particularly when writings are kept in personal accounts, may involve examination of several factors, including the content of the writing; the context and purpose for which it was written; the intended audience; and whether the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment.

Finally, the Supreme Court agreed with petitioner that potential intrusion of personal privacy resulting from a records search in personal accounts can be minimized through procedural safeguards. The court provided guidance for reasonable searches—such as relying on their employees to complete their own searches or adopting policies to reduce the likelihood of public records being held in employees’ private accounts.

Notably, the court did not, however, foreclose the opportunity for an agency to claim that the burden of obtaining records from personal accounts is too onerous.