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CPUC Cannot Use Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies to Delay Litigation Under the CPRA

In the recent ruling of Rittiman v. Public Utilities Commission, the First District Court of Appeal held that the petitioner was not required to exhaust the administrative remedies of the California Public Utilities Commission (“CPUC”) prior to filing suit on his Public Records Act (“PRA”) request. The petitioner, Brandon Rittiman, argued that his appeal was constructively denied due to the CPUC’s lengthy delay in holding his appeals hearing.

In mid-November 2020, Brandon Rittiman submitted several PRA requests to the CPUC seeking “all documents, emails, or texts” between the CPUC president and her staff and the Governor’s staff. On November 30, 2020 the CPUC determined this communication was exempt under the Governor’s correspondence exemption and no records were produced. Rittiman appealed the decision and initiated its internal appeal process as prescribed by General Order 66-D. This multi-step administrative appeal process took over seven months. The Court found that the CPUC’s seven-month delay was “egregious by any measure.”

This case highlights that while agencies, including the CPUC, can adopt their own regulations that outline their process when responding to PRA requests, their regulations must correspond with the PRA. This includes making “records promptly available” and acting “with all due haste” in handling requests. The Court’s ruling ultimately upheld the CPUC’s denial of the petitioner’s PRA request but public agencies should take note of the fact that a prolonged administrative remedy process cannot be used to delay litigation over an agency’s decision to withhold public records.