Pierce County

Appeals court voids $650K award to woman in public-records case

Staff writerSeptember 10, 2013 

A state appeals court panel has ruled that now-retired Pierce County Judge Frederick Fleming was wrong to award $650,000 in damages and fees to an abuse victim who sued the Department of Social and Health Services to get investigative records.

In a decision released Tuesday, the Division II panel ruled some of the records sought by Amber Wright were not subject to the state's Public Records Act and that others were not improperly withheld by DSHS because Wright's request for them was too vague.

Wright's attorneys, David Moody and Martin McLean, had sought the records as they prepared a personal-injury lawsuit against the agency on Wright's behalf.

She sued the state in 2009, arguing that a social worked had botched a child-abuse referral and returned her to the care of her father,  who then physically and sexually abused her.

The state settled that case last year for $2.85 million.

She sued separately over the records, contending the state illegally withheld a recorded interview agency officials had conducted with her and a transcript of that interview. She aslo argued the state withheld other records, including copies of generic investigative protocols.

Fleming agreed with Wright, saying the agency had violated the Public Records Act. He awarded damages of $287,800 and fees and costs of $362,000. DSHS appealed.

The appeals panel - made up of Justices Robin Hunt, Joel Penoyar and Thomas Bjorgen - said Fleming erred.

The recording and transcript, as juvenile records governed by separate statute, are not subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act, they ruled. They also decided Wright never specifically asked for the protocols, so DSHS was not obligated to turn them over.

"We reverse the trial court's final order finding that DSHS violated the PRA, and we reverse the trial court's award of attorney fees, costs and penalties to Wright," Hunt wrote for the panel.

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