California Supreme Court Finds that a Public Agency Cannot Inadvertently Waive Attorney-Client and Work Product Privileges
Last year, I wrote about the Second Appellate District case of Ardon v. City of Los Angeles. In Ardon, the appellate court found that a public agency can waive statutory privileges that it otherwise would have if it produces privileged documents in response to a California Public Records Act (PRA) request, even if inadvertently. However, half a year later, the First Appellate District in Newark Unified School District v. Superior Court came to the opposite conclusion in holding that a public agency cannot inadvertently waive attorney-client and work product privileges. These contradictory holdings created what is known as a “split of authority.” Today, the California Supreme Court resolved this issue in Ardon v. City of Los Angeles. The Court found that a public agency cannot waive the privileges if it inadvertently releases privileged documents in response to a PRA request.
In Ardon, the plaintiff in litigation against the City of Los Angeles sought records under the PRA from the city concerning the subject matter of its complaint. After receipt of the records, Ardon’s counsel notified the city that it had obtained copies of some records that appeared to be privileged. The city responded by asserting that the documents had been inadvertently produced. The city demanded that Ardon return the documents to the city and agree not to rely upon the documents in any way. Ardon declined this request, asserting that the city had waived any privilege claim. Citing California Government Code section 6254.5, the court found that in producing the documents, even inadvertently, the city waived any privilege claim.
The California Supreme Court characterized this issue as “one of statewide importance.” In reaching its decision, the Court reviewed the statutory language of California Government Code section 6254.5 and the other relevant statutes pertaining to the PRA. The Court concluded that the statutory language as a whole was ambiguous on this issue, and resolved the ambiguity by concluding that inadvertent disclosure does not waive the privileges. The Court stressed the importance of the statutory privileges and a party’s reasonable reliance that an inadvertent disclosure would not waive the privileges. The Court further found that there was no reason to interpret California Government Code section 6254.5 differently from Evidence Code section 912 (which applies to discovery requests in litigated disputes) in this regard. Under Evidence Code section 912, an inadvertent disclosure of privileged documents does not waive the privilege.
In this author’s opinion, the California Supreme Court made the right decision. As the Court pointed out, it would be difficult for public agencies to respond to the numerous PRA requests that they receive without any human error. The lower court’s decision would put an unnecessary burden on public agencies to ensure that they never inadvertently disclosed privileged documents. This would ultimately make it more difficult for public agencies to respond to PRA requests in a timely manner.