SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court recently issued a closely split ruling in a case involving whether or not the legal bills from settled suits involving government entities within the state are public information. A member of an advocacy group wonders how the decision will affect taxpayers.
On Dec. 29, the court voted 4-3 that while the bills for long-settled legal matters could be accessed by the public, those invoices relating to current or pending litigation were protected by the purview of attorney-client privilege.
The plaintiffs in the suit, government-transparency advocate Eric Preven and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, claim that their California Public Records Act request for copies of bills from Los Angeles County in regards to the payment of lawyers defending the county from civil-rights abuse allegations were summarily denied, and a trial judge agreed with the plaintiffs. When the county appealed, the appeals court ruled that the bills were not accessible to the public because they were confidential client information with attorneys.
The plaintiffs took the ruling to the state Supreme Court. In his majority opinion, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote that “the contents of an invoice are privileged only if they either communicate information for the purpose of legal consultation or risk exposing information that was communicated for such a purpose. This latter category includes any invoice that reflects work in active and ongoing litigation.”
Joseph Francke, a California attorney and member of the government-transparency advocacy group Californians Aware, told The Northern California Record that the court’s decision was much broader than it needed to be in this matter.
Francke said that because of this ruling, “all the public can see while the case is alive is the amounts actually paid to one or more outside law firms — for unspecified services.” What the public may be having hidden from its review are some hypothetical, yet possible, questionable acts.
The taxpayers, Francke said, may be getting billed for legal services provided by law firms that could be employing an official’s relative, using a disbarred lawyer, hiring poorly rated lawyers, or using the services of a firm that “bills far above the typical hourly rate in the area for one or more relatively minor services having nothing to do with litigation.”
Several years ago, a suit filed by attorneys David Mann and Donald Cook on behalf of a married couple who were incarcerated by Los Angeles County’s Task Force for Regional Autotheft Prevention also involved a CPRA petition for access to county government legal invoices from prior suits.
In that case, a trial court had sided with the plaintiffs, but had allowed for the redaction of attorney payment and work-related information. Los Angeles County fought the ruling and the case progressed to the California Court of Appeal. The court ruled that documents related to attorney fees paid to defend a government body from civil-rights abuse claims were not exempt from CPRA.
Francke said that CPRA “simply says that it does not require disclosure of information subject to any privilege in the Evidence Code.”
Any attempt to narrowly define the application of the state law so as to include “attorney-client privilege” should be done by the Legislature and not left to the court, he said.