Iloh v. Regents of the University of California and The Center for Scientific Integrity, No. G060856. Opinion January 13, 2023.
A science watchdog entity submitted a public records request to the University of California after the departure of a professor whose work had been retracted or corrected after publication. The departed professor failed to obtain injunctive relief, having argued that the records were not public records subject to disclosure, notwithstanding that a university email address was used in discussions about publication.
The California Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of injunctive relief.
Ms. Iloh argued that she acted on her own behalf in subjecting material for publication.
The appellate court observed that California’s Public Records Act compels disclosure of public records unless exempted. Parties may bring challenges under the act to compel disclosure but parties seeking to prevent disclosure, as here, must initiate an independent investigation to demonstrate that the government lacks discretion to disclose the records in issue.
The first inquiry is whether the documents in issue are public records, for if they are not, statutory claims do not apply.
To be a public record, a document must be related to the conduct of public business and be prepared, owned, used or retained by the government.
The use of a public entity’s email system makes the correspondence in issue owned, used or retained by a public entity.
In this case, the professor’s publications were related to and in furtherance of her position at a public university, making them part of the “public’s business.”
Although the appellate court acknowledged Iloh’s ‘catchall” interest in research integrity and freedom, the post-publication documents in issue do not merit the protections afforded pre-publication exchanges, particularly where public interest in academic integrity would favor disclosure.
The appellate court declined to transform the catchall exemption into one which would create a pre- and post- publication bright line rule: each case must be evaluated independently.
The Court of Appeals, like the trial court, could not find the personnel records exemption applicable, particularly where correspondence was in issue and where, even if some documents made their wa to Iloh’s personnel file, the public interest in disclosure outweighs any claim to privacy Iloh asserts with respect to public records.
The appellate court declined to reverse the trial court order because the trial court relied on CPRA and not “reverse” CPRA cases, reasoning that the trial court’s conclusion may be sustained if it can be seen as correct on any theory. As the court’s reasons for denial of injunctive relief were sound, there is no abuse of discretion, and the trial court’s order is upheld.