Electronically-Stored Information — Metadata Associated with Public Records Are Themselves Public Records within Washington State Statute

The issue in O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, 2008 Wash. App. LEXIS 1740 (Wash. Ct. App. July 21, 2008), was whether metadata in the electronic version of email subject to production under the Public Records Act of the State of Washington (PRA) were, like the email, subject to disclosure under the PRA.

A "public record" is:

any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned , used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.

A "writing" is:

Handwriting . . . and every other means of recording any form of communication or representation, including, but not limited to . . . magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, diskettes, . . . and other documents including existing data compilations from which information may be obtained or translated.

The metadata associated with the e-mail, or some portion of it, falls within the broad definition of a writing. It is sufficiently similar to the examples of the types of documents in the definition to qualify as a "writing." Accordingly, the information falls within that broad definition in the statute, as we must liberally interpret the PRA.

Moreover, on this record, the metadata contains information that "relates to" the conduct of government or the performance of a governmental function. It shows the e-mail addresses of persons who may have knowledge of alleged government improprieties in dealing with a zoning matter. This too falls squarely within the statute's definition of "public record," as we must liberally construe the PRA.

Finally, no one argues that anyone other than the deputy mayor, an agent of the City, "owns" the metadata from the e-mail she received on her personal e-mail account that she uses, in part, for the City's business. The PRA does not define "own." Thus, reference to a dictionary is permissible to determine legislative intent. The dictionary definition of own is, "To have or possess as property." Using that definition here, it is clear that the City owns the metadata associated with the requested e-mail.

Held, metadata associated with public records are themselves public records under the Washington statute.

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