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Yakima Public Schools Central Services office on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021 in Yakima, Wash.

The Washington state Court of Appeals upheld a trial court decision Thursday permitting the Yakima School District not to release employment documents in a public records request, and sanctioned the attorney requesting the files.

The opinion surrounds a public records request filed by Andrew Magee in November 2018. The Yakima School District released some records of district employees and applicants later found to be confidential, or exempt from release.

Magee, an attorney representing a job applicant suing the district in a separate civil case involving the district’s drug testing procedures, asked the district for all records related to drug testing imposed on district applicants, according to court documents.

The district released some of the drug testing records to avoid violating state Public Records Act rules, and in mid-2019 sought a Yakima County Superior Court ruling to avoid having to release the rest, believing they were confidential.

That fall, the court found that the records were part of an application for public employment, making them exempt from release. Magee appealed, and the case went to Division III of the state Court of Appeals.

In an unpublished opinion by the appeals court filed on Thursday, the court:

  • agreed that the records requested were exempt from release;
  • pointed to court filings by Magee that failed to comply with legal rules and contained “numerous forceful and frankly unprofessional arguments;”
  • and upheld that the school district had not waived its rights to withhold documents by releasing initial documents, while noting that the district should have filed for an exemption sooner.

In addition, the court opinion imposed sanctions of $1,000 against Magee, stating that his violations “required this court, and we presume YSD also, to spend unnecessary time determining what arguments to address and how to best address them.” Half was to be paid to the school district and half to the court within 20 days of the filing of the opinion — April 7.

Details of the case

The original public records request in 2018 was filed by Magee as an individual, not an attorney, court records show. He requested records of “results of drug screenings performed as part of … YSD’s employment application process.”

He was separately representing a job applicant who declined to take a pre-employment drug screening test in a federal lawsuit. That lawsuit alleged that the requirement violated the state constitution. The district said the employment offer was rescinded for another reason.

In response to Magee’s public records request, the district provided some of the drug screening records. But in June 2019, after suggesting to Magee that the records might be exempt and not hearing back, the school district went to Yakima County Superior Court to avoid giving him the rest, the Thursday court opinion said. It said this was necessary in the face of threats of litigation by Magee over public records violations.

District employees noted in court documents that the district had such drug screening documents for roughly 2,000 district employees in addition to several job applicants, and that the requested documents were maintained in district cabinets “referred to as ‘HIPAA filed,’” a reference to the federal law that protects medical privacy.

Magee, who represented himself in the Superior Court case by the school district to halt the documents’ release, argued that the district had waived its right to deny the public records request, and that the district admitted to releasing personal information that he and the public are not authorized to receive, violating employee and applicants’ privacy rights, court records show. He asked the court to release all remaining documents to him, make him the authority to contact those whose information had been released and order Yakima School District to pay his attorney fees.

While pursuing court permission not to release the documents, the district released a third installment of the documents to Magee — out of 33 installments.

In the Thursday appeal court opinion, the court said the district “should have more promptly identified the exemption,” but said the failure was in part due to the large scope of Magee’s public records request.

It upheld the Superior Court decision that the district had not waived its rights to withhold the documents found exempt as public employment records and — in an opinion candidly critiquing Magee’s legal approach and verbiage — ordered the fine for wasting district and court time.

Contacted Thursday, Magee said: “I’ve read the opinion. I accept that that’s the opinion, but respectfully disagree with what was said in that opinion.”

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka