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Originally published Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 10:39 AM

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Appeals court throws out $650,000 records ruling against DSHS

A state appeals court has thrown out one of the largest Public Records Act penalties ever, ruling an abuse victim was not clear enough in her records requests to justify punishing the Department of Social and Health Services.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A state appeals court has thrown out one of the largest Public Records Act penalties ever, ruling an abuse victim was not clear enough in her records requests to justify punishing the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

The ruling, issued Tuesday, could erase a penalty of nearly $650,000. But an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

The case dates back to 2007, when Amber Wright requested her DSHS file while she was preparing to sue the agency for allegedly leaving her in the care of an abusive father.

Wright eventually discovered she had not received some information, including a recording of an interview she had done with police about the abuse.

So her attorneys filed two lawsuits against the DSHS — one related to the abuse, the other accusing officials of withholding records.

The first suit was eventually settled for $2.85 million.

The second became the biggest ever penalty against a state agency after former Pierce County Judge Frederick Fleming found that DSHS officials withheld four documents: the audio recording and a transcript of it, agency investigation protocols and a training manual for prospective and adoptive parents.

Fleming described the officials’ actions as “an unbelievable obstruction of justice.”

But the appeals court disagreed. The court ruled the recording and transcript were juvenile records that were thus not subject to the Public Records Act, which Wright had used to make her request, but were subject to another law.

The judges also said Wright’s request did not specify with “reasonable clarity” that she wanted the protocols and manual included with information about her own situation.

“We support the full disclosure and transparency goals of the PRA,” said DSHS public-records officer Kristal Wiitala in a news release after the appeals court ruling. “At the same time, we are not expected to be mind readers or to spend taxpayers’ money on searching for documents that could possibly relate, but were never requested.”

Wright’s lawyer, David P. Moody, called the latest decision “odd in light of the clear opinions expressed by the trial court.”

“Even children are entitled to public records,” Moody said. “The State Supreme Court will make this clear. Our client will file an appeal to the Supreme Court.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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