First District Court of Appeal Allows City to Recover Costs of “Extracting” and Producing Video Recordings Requested Under the California Public Records Act

On September 28, 2018, the First District issued its decision in National Lawyers Guild v. City of Hayward (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 937. Concluding that the trial court misinterpreted applicable provisions of the California Public Records Act (CPRA), the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to issue a writ directing the City of Hayward to refund the National Lawyers Guild for payments that the Guild made to cover the city’s costs in producing videos responsive to the Guild’s request for public records.

In January 2015, the Guild served the city with requests for public records relating to a demonstration in Berkeley protesting police violence. The city’s police department provided security for the demonstration that was held in December 2014. In response to the Guilds’ CPRA request, the city provided the Guild with over 200 public records, including six hours of police body camera videos from the Berkeley demonstration. In May 2015, the city sent the Guild an invoice for $2,939.58 to cover the costs incurred by city employees in preparing the videos for production, including editing the videos to redact exempt material. The Guild paid this first invoice under protest and submitted another request for a second set of videos. The city informed the Guild that the second set of videos could be produced for a cost of $308.89. The Guild paid the second invoice, but not before it filed a petition for writ of mandate seeking a refund of what it had paid to the city.

The trial court concluded that Government Code sections 6253 and 6253.9 do not permit the city to charge a public records requester for costs incurred in redacting material from a video that is a public record. After the trial court ruled in favor of the Guild, the city appealed.

The appellate court began with an overview of the statutory framework and public policies behind the CPRA. Then the court focused on the plain language in Section 6253 and Section 6253.9, subdivision (b)(2). The main dispute between the city and the Guild centered on the term “extract” in Section 6253.9, subdivision (b), which provides: “the requester shall bear the cost of producing a copy of the record” when compliance with the request for an electronic record “would require data compilation, extraction, or programming to produce the record.” (Gov. Code, § 6253.9, subd. (b).)

The court decided that it must consider legislative history because it was not clear from the statutory text what the Legislature intended. Based on various documents that the court judicially noticed for purposes of the appeal, the court concluded that lawmakers drafted Section 6253.9(b) to “expand the circumstances under which a public agency could be reimbursed by a CPRA requester to include” a scenario where “the agency must incur costs to acquire and utilize special computer programming (e.g., the Windows Movie Maker software) to extract exempt material from otherwise disclosable electronic public records.” The court reversed the trial court’s judgment, allowing the city to recover the costs it incurred in providing the Guild with redacted videos.