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What is a 'reasonable estimate'?

What is a 'reasonable estimate'?

(Public Records Act) Permanent link

A reasonable estimate will vary depending on many factors, and may be revised depending on circumstances.

Agencies have a duty to make available public records for inspection and copying unless specific information or records are exempt by law.  RCW 42.56.070(1).  An agency must promptly respond to a request for public records within five business days.  RCW 42.56.520.  That initial response may be one of several answers such as:

1) Providing the requested public records; or
2) Providing a reasonable estimate of the time to fully respond to the request; or
3) Denying the request and providing statutory authority for the denial with a brief explanation; or
4) Seeking clarification of the requested records.

For large or complex requests an agency's initial response will likely be a “reasonable estimate” for the time to fully respond.

The Attorney General’s Model Rules give guidance on "reasonable estimates".  The model rules provide the best practices for responding to records requests.  The model rules are non-binding advice for compliance with the Public Records Act. Courts have cited the Attorney General’s Model Rules in three published cases.  Soter v. Cowles Pub. Co., 162 Wn.2d 716, 753 (2007); Rental Housing A’ssn of Puget Sound v. City of Des Moines, 165 Wn.2d 525, 539 (2009); Beal v. City of Seattle, 209 P.3d 872, 876 (2009) (holding that the Attorney General’s non-binding rules contain “persuasive reasoning”).

The model rules state:

The burden of proof is on an agency to prove its estimate of time to provide a full response is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2).  An agency should be prepared to explain how it arrived at its estimate of time and why the estimate is reasonable.  See WAC 44-14-04001.

The responsibilities of agencies for processing requests is addressed in the model rules.

WAC 44-14-04003(6) 

    Provide a reasonable estimate of the time to fully respond. Unless it is providing the records or claiming an exemption from disclosure within the five-business day period, an agency must provide a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to fully respond to the request. RCW 42.17.320/42.56.520. Fully responding can mean processing the request (assembling records, redacting, preparing a withholding index, or notifying third parties named in the records who might seek an injunction against disclosure) or determining if the records are exempt from disclosure.

     An estimate must be "reasonable." The act provides a requestor a quick and simple method of challenging the reasonableness of an agency's estimate. RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2). See WAC 44-14-08004 (5)(b). The burden of proof is on the agency to prove its estimate is "reasonable." RCW 42.17.340(2)/42.56.550(2).

     To provide a "reasonable" estimate, an agency should not use the same estimate for every request. An agency should roughly calculate the time it will take to respond to the request and send estimates of varying lengths, as appropriate. Some very large requests can legitimately take months or longer to fully provide. There is no standard amount of time for fulfilling a request so reasonable estimates should vary.

     Some agencies send form letters with thirty-day estimates to all requestors, no matter the size or complexity of the request. Form letter thirty-day estimates are rarely "reasonable" because an agency, which has the burden of proof, could find it difficult to prove that every single request it receives would take the same thirty-day period.

     In order to avoid unnecessary litigation over the reasonableness of an estimate, an agency should briefly explain to the requestor the basis for the estimate in the initial response. The explanation need not be elaborate but should allow the requestor to make a threshold determination of whether he or she should question that estimate further or has a basis to seek judicial review of the reasonableness of the estimate.

     An agency should either fulfill the request within the estimated time or, if warranted, communicate with the requestor about clarifications or the need for a revised estimate. An agency should not ignore a request and then continuously send extended estimates. Routine extensions with little or no action to fulfill the request would show that the previous estimates probably were not "reasonable." Extended estimates are appropriate when the circumstances have changed (such as an increase in other requests or discovering that the request will require extensive redaction). An estimate can be revised when appropriate, but unwarranted serial extensions have the effect of denying a requestor access to public records.

An agency's reasonable estimate should consider the complexity and number of requests, agency resources, and other agency essential functions.  The reasonable estimate should be based on the time to fully respond which includes assembling and reviewing the records, notifying third parties, redacting exempt information, and creating a withholding index.

You may request an agency provide some records in installments, rather than wait for disclosure all at once.  By disclosing in batches, the agency can show that they are making progress on the request and not just taking unwarranted serial extensions.  Agencies have authority to disclose in batches pursuant to RCW 42.56.120.

Posted by Open Government Ombudsman at 08/13/2009 02:15:34 PM 

DISCLAIMER: The "Unredacted" webpage and its content is not intended or offered to provide legal advice or legal representation by the Office of the Attorney General. The attorney general's office provides information, technical assistance, and training on the provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act pursuant to RCW 42.30.210 and provides information to records requestors and state and local agencies about "best practices" for complying with the Public Records Act consistent with the adoption of model rules pursuant to RCW 42.56.570. Send Feedback
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