In a groundbreaking ruling, the Arizona Supreme Court held that the metadata of documents maintained by public entities in electronic format is subject to disclosure under Arizona's public records laws. The ruling significantly alters the obligations of Arizona public entities responding to public records requests and is likely to have a persuasive effect on courts in other states addressing the same issue.

In Lake v. City of Phoenix, et al., the court, sitting en banc, considered whether a Phoenix police officer accusing the City of Phoenix of discrimination was entitled to metadata of documents maintained by the city in electronic format. The ruling appears to be the first of its kind at a state supreme court level.

The court noted that the "question is whether a 'public record' maintained in an electronic format includes not only the information normally visible upon printing the document but also any embedded data." Rejecting the City of Phoenix's argument that metadata is distinct from its corresponding document, the court ruled that the "metadata in an electronic document is part of the underlying document; it does not stand on its own." The court continued: "It would be illogical, and contrary to the policy of openness underlying the public records laws, to conclude that public entities can withhold information embedded in an electronic document, such as the date of creation, while they would be required to produce the same information if it were written manually on a paper public record." The court concluded that "when a public entity maintains a public record in an electronic format, the electronic version of the record, including any embedded metadata, is subject to disclosure under our public records law."

The court held that public entities could satisfy public records requests for metadata by providing the requestor with a copy of the record in its native format. The court also held that production of a document's metadata, like the production of the document itself, is subject to restrictions on disclosure based on concerns of privacy, confidentiality, or the best interests of the state.

To read the court's opinion, click here.

If you would like to learn more about how this ruling may affect you, contact John G. Kerkorian at 602.798.5408 or kerkorianj@ballardspahr.com, or Brian Schulman at 602.798.5407 or schulmanb@ballardspahr.com.


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