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Administrative remedies set out by the California Public Utilities Commission must obey the Public Records Act

California

,

United States

In Rittiman v. a Public Utilities Commission, A162842 (Cal. Ct. App. June 17, 2022), the petitioner sought review of the California Public Utilities Commission’s (“CPUC”) denial of his Public Records Act (“PRA”) request. CPUC argued that the writ petition should be dismissed because the petitioner failed to fully exhaust his administrative remedies, specifically by failing to file an application for rehearing as required by Public Utilities Code; that this proceeding was moot; and, that the commission properly denied the petitioner’s PRA requests.

CPUC’s rehearing process is at odds with the PRA

The California Court of Appeal for the First District found the Legislature expressly made the PRA applicable to CPUC. Thus, the PRA fixes the bounds of CPUC’s authority to adopt procedures for PRA requests.

The PRA sets out the means by which a government entity’s decision to withhold records can be challenged in court. The PRA calls for the expedient handling of record requests and the

resolution of disputes over such requests. The Court found that the administrative remedies set forth in the Public Utilities Code, specifically the provisions governing rehearing, were at odds with the requirements set out in the PRA. Therefore, the rehearing requirement set forth in Public Utilities Code section 1731 does not apply to PRA requests. The Court clarified that they were not concluding that CPUC could not adopt procedures governing PRA requests that include an administrative remedy; however, any such non-statutory remedy must comport with the PRA by ensuring the expeditious handling of record requests and timely resolution of disputes over whether records are disclosable.

Petitioner’s writ allowed to proceed

The Court held that the petitioner’s writ could proceed because the rehearing requirement set forth in the Public Utilities Code does not apply to the PRA and because the exhaustion of administrative remedies is excused where the administrative procedure is too slow to be effective. Additionally, CPUC’s eventual denial of the petitioner’s administrative appeal did not moot the issues raised in his petition.

Governor’s correspondence exemption applied

However, the Court found that the records the petitioner sought, exchanges between CPUC’s president and/or her executive staff and the Governor’s staff, were statutorily exempt from disclosure under the Governor’s correspondence exemption. This exemption exempts from disclosure correspondence of and to the Governor or employees of the Governor’s office or in the custody of or maintained by the Governor’s Legal Affairs Secretary.

Disposition

Despite finding that the rehearing requirement set forth in the Public Utilities Code does not apply to the PRA, the Court sustained CPUC’s demurrer on the ground the records petitioner sought were exempt from disclosure under the Governor’s correspondence exemption and therefore dismissed the proceeding.

July 19, 2022
Rittiman v. a Public Utilities Commission, A162842 (Cal. Ct. App. June 17, 2022)
Author: Grace Baehren