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Supreme Court of Arizona holds Metadata is Subject to Public Records Requests

Posted in CASE SUMMARIES

Lake v. City of Phoenix, 222 Ariz. 547, 218 P.3d 1004 (2009)

In an en banc opinion, the Supreme Court of Arizona vacated (in part) an opinion from the Court of Appeals and held that “if a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, then the electronic version, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure under our public records laws.”  [Emphasis added.]

In the course of the underlying litigation, David Lake, a Phoenix police officer, sought the production of metadata associated with notes he suspected were backdated.  The city denied the request, contending the metadata was not a public record.  The city’s refusal was upheld on appeal.

Upon appeal of the issue to the Supreme Court, however, the opinion was vacated.  In so holding, the Supreme Court determined that “[t]he court of appeals erred in concluding that ‘the public records law supports a distinction between the metadata ‘records’ that Lake sought to acquire and the ‘public records’ that are accessible to the public.’”  The pertinent question, as identified by the Supreme Court, was not whether the metadata itself could be considered a public record, but rather, “whether a ‘public record’ maintained in an electronic format includes not only the information normally visible upon printing the document but also any embedded metadata.”  Accordingly, the court held that “when a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, the electronic version of the record, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure under public records law.”  In support of this conclusion, the court reasoned: 

The metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own.  When a police officer uses a computer to make a public record, the metadata forms part of the document as much as the words on the page.  Cf. Williams v. Sprint/United Mgmt. Co., 230 F.R.D. 640, 652 (D. Kan. 2005) (noting, in discussing federal civil discovery rules, that “metadata is an inherent part of al electronic document.”).  Arizona’s public records law requires that the requestor be allowed to review a copy of the “real record.” Lake, 220 Ariz. at 486 ¶ 48, 207 P.3d at 739 (Norris, J. dissenting).  It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records law, to conclude that public entities can withhold information embedded in an electronic document, such as the date of creation, while they would be required to produce the same information if it were written manually on a paper public record.

Addressing the city’s hypothetical “administrative nightmare” when identifying metadata to respond to records requests, the court noted that “[a] public entity is not required to spend ‘countless hours’ identifying metadata; instead, it can satisfy a public records request merely by providing the requestor with a copy of the record in its native format.”  The court went on to note that metadata would not be responsive to every request.

Ending its discussion, the court made clear what it did not decide in this opinion:

We do not here decide when a public entity is required to retain public records in electronic format.  That a public record currently exists in an electronic format, and is subject to disclosure in that format, does not itself determine whether there is a statutory obligation to preserve it electronically.

A copy of the full opinion is available here.

A summary of the underlying opinion from the Arizona Court of Appeals is available here.