O'Neill v. City of Shoreline, No. 82397-9. In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court ruled this morning that metadata associated with public records such as email is a public record, subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. Justice Susan Owens wrote the majority opinion (signed by Sanders, Chambers, Fairhurst, and Stephens). Justice Gerry Alexander wrote a dissent (signed by Madsen, C.Johnson, and J.Johnson).
During a public meeting, Shoreline Deputy Mayor Maggie Fimia referred to an email she had received that alleged misconduct by council members. Fimia mentioned erroneously that the email was sent by Beth O'Neill. O'Neill requested a copy of the email. Fimia forwarded O'Neill a copy of the email without the “to” and “from” lines.” O’Neill then requested all information surrounding the email. An original, unaltered copy of the email string was provided. After the second disclosure, O’Neill requested the metadata (hidden information about electronic documents) from the email chain. Apparently, however, the original email in electronic form was deleted.
O’Neill sued, alleging a violation of the Public Records Act. The trial dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals ruled that metadata must be disclosed under the PRA. The city and deputy mayor appealed.
The Supreme Court resolved four questions: 1) Is e-mail metadata a public record that must be disclosed under the PRA? 2) Does a request to see an e-mail inherently include a request to see metadata? 3) Did the Court of Appeals err by granting attorney fees? 4) Can a public records request be decided on affidavits alone?
On the first issue, the Supreme Court noted the broad definitions in the PRA that are intended to give the public control over their government. Therefore, “an electronic version of a record, including its embedded metadata, is a public record subject to disclosure. There is no doubt here that the relevant e-mail itself is a public record, so its embedded metadata is also a public record and must be disclosed.”
Second, the court held that metadata must be explicitly requested in order to trigger an agency’s obligation to provide it.
Third, the court remanded the case to trial court to determine whether a violation of the PRA actually occurred, and denied attorneys fees until such a determination is made.
Finally, the court held that the PRA allows a hearing to be conducted based solely on affidavits.