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Appellate Court Explains “Balancing Test” Under California Public Records Act

A California Court of Appeal recently affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny the release of documents relating to academic research under the “catch-all” exemption of the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”).  SeeHumane Society of the United States v. Superior Court of Yolo County (Regents of the University of California), filed March 27, 2013, C067081.  Under the “catch-all” exemption, a court balances whether the public interest is better served by releasing or withholding the documents.  Here, the court relied almost exclusively on the balancing test as the basis for withholding the documents, which is uncommon in court decisions analyzing the CPRA.

In this case, the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) sued to obtain records from the University of California Regents (“Regents”) relating to research leading to a published study by the University’s Agricultural Issues Center.  The Regents objected to releasing the records, claiming they consisted of preliminary data, prepublication thoughts, conversations and informal exchanges of ideas among researchers.  The Regents argued that the public interest would be better served by allowing researchers to engage in informal discussions and brainstorming.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the Regents, noting “disclosure of prepublication research communications would fundamentally impair the academic research process to the detriment of the public that benefits from the studies produced by that research.”  The appellate court also noted that the trial court, through a special master, had examined the 3000+ pages of documents in question and determined that all should be withheld under the balancing test.

This case is noteworthy because of the court’s extensive discussion of the balancing test used in the “catch-all” exception under the CPRA.  The court emphasized that use of the balancing test is on a case-by-case basis and that the burden of proof as to this exemption is on the party arguing against disclosure.  This case is instructive as to proper use of the balancing test under the CPRA.