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PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages, attorney fees

Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages, attorney fees - Post-Intelligencer 2007

Corrections to pay $541,000

Record settlement set for withholding public records

Saturday, June 9, 2007
Last updated 12:38 a.m. PT


The state Department of Corrections will pay a Seattle-based prisoner-rights newspaper $541,000 for withholding public records -- the largest public-records-related settlement in state history.

The judgment Friday comes more than seven years after Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, submitted two requests for public records detailing how 14 prison medical workers were reprimanded for their treatment of 10 inmates who died or suffered serious injuries. The records included one prisoner whose wound was closed with Krazy Glue.

"The fact that this was the biggest penalty payout in a public records case in state history kind of speaks for itself," said Wright, who was serving 25 years for felony murder in a 1987 Seattle shooting when he made the initial request. He was released in 2003.

Friday's settlement, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, comes after Prison Legal News spent years wading through the appellate court system. The DOC won the initial case and one appeal before the state Supreme Court ruled that the records should be turned over without names redacted with black ink.

"It was our belief that we were on solid legal ground," DOC spokesman Gary Larson said. "This wasn't a situation where the department ignored the law ... it was only when the Supreme Court ruled that we found we were wrong."

The DOC takes the state's Open Public Records Act seriously, he said. From January through March this year, staff members processed 1,100 records requests -- more than 75,000 pages of documents -- and many of those requests have been from inmates, he said.

But Michele Earl-Hubbard, the lawyer representing the newspaper, thinks the DOC didn't respond fast enough after the Supreme Court's ruling. If it had, the settlement might have been smaller, she said.

For all 266 days the newspaper didn't receive the documents after the ruling, the DOC agreed to pay $100 per request -- the maximum penalty allowed by law.

The issue became even more complicated when the DOC couldn't provide 19 pages of documents because the originals had been redacted.

"It was a simple mistake," Larson said. "It was not a willful altering of an original document."

That mistake added nearly $50,000 to the settlement. Peter Berney, a lawyer for the state, said DOC staff members supplied the redacted information after all; they were able to make out the words by holding the documents up to a light bulb.

Berney thinks that since the penalties are determined by how many days the DOC failed to provide the documents, "the department is kind of paying a penalty for the length of time it took to complete the court process."

Earl-Hubbard said she wonders if it would have taken almost one year for the DOC to produce the documents if the state weren't picking up the settlement bill.

"The checks they write are ultimately not their own -- it's taxpayer money," she said.

The settlement amount surpassed a recent court decision to raise the amount a Vashon Island man received because King County didn't provide economic-impact studies relating to Qwest Field in a timely manner. In 2005, Armen Yousoufian was awarded $300,000 for the county's mistake, but that amount subsequently has been increased by further rulings.

About $200,000 of Friday's settlement is made up in penalties. The rest comprises attorneys' fees and other costs. Prison Legal News plans to buy an office in Seattle with the settlement money, Wright said.

As for the documents Wright requested in 2000, they're not much of a story anymore, he said. The documents included the DOC's account of the 1998 death of prisoner Charles Snipes, who died in his Monroe cell after medical staff thought he was "faking," Wright said.

"The reality is the fact that they kept the records under wraps for more than six years and basically killed the story," he said.

Wright plans to resubmit the request, this time asking for records from 2000 through this year. He wants to have a story in print by the end of the summer.

"Hopefully we'll get a more timely response," he said.

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