LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Los Angeles Times should not have been denied the recovery of attorney fees when the publication sought an unredacted version of an independent report on a fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, according to an appeals court opinion filed on Thursday.
The Second Appellate Court’s opinion said the lower court erred because the newspaper’s lawsuit was the result of a complaint that dealt with “enforcement of an important right affecting public interest” and is a case that involves a police officer’s union who sought to withhold information from the public.
In March 2012, 19-year-old Kendrec McDade was fatally shot by two Pasadena police officers who were responding to an armed robbery.
An independent report was prepared on the fatal shooting that involved officers Matthew Griffin and Jeffrey Newlen, who said they shot in self-defense, but it was later found that McDade was not armed at the time.
In their lawsuit, the officers claimed that the Office of Independent Review (OIR) Group report, which includes information on statements the officers made to investigators after the shooting, would violate their privacy rights. They, along with their police union, sued the city of Pasadena, its top officials and Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Around the same time, the Los Angeles Times filed a motion to intervene in Pasadena Police Officers Association v. City of Pasadena. The Los Angeles Times filed a writ petition to get the release of an unredacted version of the report.
A superior court judge granted a temporary injunction that sealed the report, but an appellate panel found that the order went too far.
The appellate court determined that the OIR report was indisputably a public record, because it related to officer involved shootings and governmental policies regarding law enforcement and public safety. The trial court was ordered to conduct additional proceedings to reconsider which portions of the report contained confidential personnel records.
In December 2015, the Los Angeles Times filed a motion for attorney fees and costs from the city of Pasadena under the Public Records Act (PRA). The newspaper also sought fees from Pasadena, Griffin and Newlen and the officers’ union, the Pasadena Police Officers Association (PPOA).
The Los Angeles Times sought $261,327 for the legal work it did during the writ proceedings and an additional $89,095 in connection with post-remand issues, including the fee motion.
The trial court said the Los Angeles Times could only recover fees under the Public Records Act for its work “to affirmatively enforce” those requests it had made with the city of Pasadena, but not for the work it had performed to defend against the union’s reverse-Public Records action, according to court records.
The trial court said the Los Angeles Times obtained a majority of the relief it sought when it intervened in the case, because a redacted version of the report was released.
Thursday’s appellate court opinion, written by Associate Justice Jeffrey Johnson, said the lower courts erred when they applied the “Adoption of Joshua S.” and denied the newspaper the fees it sought.
Johnson wrote that the “Adoption of Joshua S.” – which says “that a private individual could not be held liable for fees” under the private attorney general statute “when that individual sought a judgment that determined only his or her private rights and did nothing to adversely affect the public interest other than being on the losing side of an important appellate case” – did not apply in this case.
Instead he wrote that the police union “said it represented the interests of all its members, not just Officers Newlin and Griffith, in seeking to prevent the release of the OIR report. Indeed, the PPOA expressly stated its goal was to ensure that the confidential personnel information of peace officers remained confidential in the face of PRA requests and that its work in this case affected the confidential information of all peace officers.”
Johnson continued, “Thus, despite the trial court’s determination to the contrary, the PPOA did not simply represent the two officers as private litigants—the union also acted on its own behalf. Indeed, a public employee union with a prominent role in governmental activity “has assumed the role of a public institution” and “…here, a public organization sought a judgment that determined the rights of all its members.”
The Los Angeles Times is entitled to fees under the private attorney general statute and the appellate court reverses the trial’s courts order denying the Times its fees. On remand, the matter is sent back to the trial court with directions to “award reasonable fees against the officers and/or the PPOA for its work during all stages of this case, including the present appeal.”
A phone call to the Pasadena Police Officers Association was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.