A state appellate court on August 15 ruled the City of San Diego failed to turn over documents requested in a Public Records Act request and is liable to pay attorney fees.
On August 7, 2015, an attorney for Ponani Sukumar submitted a Public Records Act Request for documents pertaining to a code-enforcement investigation conducted at Sukumar's residence. Beginning in 1990, Sukumar's neighbors registered complaints to the city about noise and other disturbances from industrial washers and dryers Sukumar installed in his garage. During the course of the next 25 years the city launched numerous investigations. In December 2014 the city notified Sukumar that he was subject to fines for lack of parking and for operating industrial equipment in a residential zone.
As the investigation continued, Sukumar hired an attorney who then submitted a request to view all documents mentioning Sukumar, his property, and the neighbors who filed the complaint.
Staff at the city began compiling the documents. Three weeks later, Sukumar's attorney filed a writ of mandate after he felt that the city had failed to disclose numerous emails and photos.
During discovery, the city released hundreds of emails and other documents. In March 2016, deputy city attorney Catherine Richardson told the court that she was willing to testify under oath that all disclosable documents had been turned over.
"Your Honor, I'm happy to provide verification that we've produced everything," Richardson told the judge according to the appellate court ruling.
The trial-court judge then ordered the city to present three witnesses to verify that, in fact, all documents had been disclosed.
Shortly before the testimony, the city produced additional emails and photographs — the ones that Sukumar's attorneys had requested. To make matters worse, one month later the city found another 146 emails relevant to the case.
However, despite the discovery of additional emails, a trial-court judge dismissed the lawsuit and found that the lawsuit did not compel the discovery of additional emails, thus preventing Sukumar and his attorney from collecting approximately $99,000 in attorney fees from the city.
On August 15 the appellate court overturned the trial court's ruling.
"The trial court's finding that the city 'was not motivated by this lawsuit' to produce responsive and material documents is not supported by substantial evidence," reads the court's ruling.
"In the face of the city's unequivocal assertion in March 2016 that it had already produced everything, the conclusion seems inescapable that but for Sukumar's persistent demand for discovery and the court-ordered depositions that resulted from those efforts, the city would not have produced any of the above-mentioned responsive documents."
And while both Sukumar's attorneys and judges found there was no bad faith in the city's withholding the documents, it was clear that the lawsuit prompted additional emails.
"However, bad faith is not the test. The effect of the city's inability or unwillingness to locate and produce these documents until court-ordered discovery ensued after March 8, 2016, is tantamount to withholding requested information from a [Public Records Act] request."
Furthermore, the appellate court ordered trial-court judge John Meyer to reverse his decision and rule that Sukumar did in fact prevail in the case and that he determine the amount the city will pay in attorney's fees.