State high court rules metadata are public records

Daniel Skallman | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 8, 2010

The Washington Supreme Court upheld Thursday an appellate court’s ruling that metadata -- information related to the history, tracking or management of an electronic document -- is a public record subject to disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

The ruling involved a 2006 case in which Shoreline, Wash., resident Beth O’Neill sued under the Public Records Act to obtain metadata detailing the senders and recipients of a string of e-mails sent to Shoreline Deputy Mayor Maggie Fimia that accused the city council of being “dysfunctional.”

Fimia claimed at a public city council meeting that O’Neill had sent her an e-mail accusing the council of improper conduct. O’Neill denied authorship of the e-mail and, after unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the metadata from the original message, filed suit under the Public Records Act. Having access to this data would allow O’Neill to determine information such as the date, time, sender and recipient of the original message.

In writing for the majority, Justice Susan Owens stated: "Metadata may contain information that relates to the conduct of government and is important for the public to know. It could conceivably include information about whether a document was altered, what time a document was created, or who sent a document to whom."

Owens highlighted the importance of upholding the state’s Public Records Act in the appellate court’s decision. “Our broad PRA exists to ensure that the public maintains control over their government, and we will not deny our citizenry access to a whole class of possible important government information,” she wrote.

Because this was a case of first impression before the court, justices relied on a similar ruling from the Supreme Court of Arizona in their decision, which also held that “an electronic version of a record, including its embedded metadata, is a public record subject to disclosure.” According to the court, Arizona is the only other state whose high court had considered the issue before.

The original e-mail in question had been sent from Diane Hettrick to Lisa Thwing, both private citizens, according to court documents. The message detailed O’Neill’s efforts to confront an “illegal rental” in her neighborhood and expressed frustrations regarding the city council’s improper conduct around the issue. Thwing then forwarded the message to Fimia and other city council members.

When O’Neill asked to view the original e-mail, Fimia forwarded a copy of the message from her office to her own personal e-mail account and removed the names of both the sender and recipient “in order to protect Ms. Thwing from potential public exposure,” according to city council documents. Fimia’s office then provided O’Neill with a printout of the message. Unsatisfied with the redacted copy, O’Neill made a written request for all information relating to the original e-mail.

Fimia said she was unable to locate the original e-mail, and thus Thwing sent another copy of the message to Fimia’s personal e-mail address. The city then provided O’Neill with an unaltered copy of this message. When O’Neill later requested all metadata from the original e-mail, Fimia claimed she had “inadvertently destroyed” it, according to court documents. O’Neill then filed suit under the Public Records Act.

When a lower trial court dismissed the suit, O’Neill brought the case to the Washington Court of Appeals, which ruled that the city had not provided her with the original metadata she sought. The appellate court remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether Fimia’s hard drive on her personal computer contained metadata associated with the original e-mail and whether the City had violated the state Public Records Act by not releasing the data.

After Fimia petitioned the state Supreme Court for review, it confirmed the appellate court’s decision, stating that because Fimia used her personal computer for city business, the city is allowed to search her hard drive to recover the metadata.

“If government employees could circumvent the PRA by using their home computers for government business, the PRA could be drastically undermined,” Justice Owens wrote.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Gerry Alexander wrote for the four-judge minority: “I do not believe that what is contained on the hard drive of a public employee’s personal home computer, whether it is deemed 'metadata' or something else, is a public record."

Michele Earl-Hubbard, O’Neill’s attorney, said she was pleased the high court followed the Arizona ruling that metadata are public records. She said the court also overturned the Shoreline City Council's request that if metadata are considered to be public records, such a ruling should only be applied to future cases and not to O’Neill’s. The court “soundly rejected” that idea, she said.

But despite her enthusiasm with the high court’s ruling, Earl-Hubbard was disappointed that after the four years the case has dragged on, her client must return to the trial court once again.

The high court itself cannot rule whether the city violated the Public Records Act. Rather, it has determined that the city should have the opportunity to prove that the metadata in the original e-mail are identical to the data in the message the city council provided to O’Neill. If it cannot do so, then the city will be in violation of the act and O'Neill is entitled to compensation for legal fees.

The frustration, Earl-Hubbard said, is that the city has already shown it cannot possibly provide the original metadata, making another trip to the trial court “a wasted exercise,” especially considering O’Neill has gone through four different courts since 2006, “just to try and get an e-mail and some metadata.”

When asked why O’Neill is spending so much time and effort to get the e-mail, especially when she already has enough information the clear her name, Earl-Hubbard said: “At this point, it’s become more about principle.”

“It’s a fight they couldn’t drop for the citizens of Washington. They had to fight it because the principle was so important. The arguments being put against them were so objectionable, they had to take it all the way to the Supreme Court and get the court to answer what the law said,” Earl-Hubbard explained.

“In our state, you don’t have to explain who you are or why you want [information] because the fact is you’re entitled to it. And the principle of open government is just as important as the specific reason why you wanted the records,” she added.