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Exemptions and Prohibitions for Local Government Records

This page provides an overview of common Public Records Act (PRA) exemptions for cities, counties, and Special Purpose Districts in Washington State.

It is part of MRSC's series on the Public Records Act.


Overview

Some public records are exempt from disclosure (either in whole or in part) under the Public Records Act or other statutes; if a record is exempt from disclosure, the agency has the option to disclose the record but is not required to. Some public records are prohibited from disclosure, which means that the agency cannot disclose the records. And, some public records have no disclosure restrictions and must be provided upon request.

PRA exemptions are set forth in RCW 42.56.230-.470. Other exemptions and disclosure prohibitions are found in various other state and federal statutes. MRSC has developed a comprehensive list of exemptions and prohibitions found in other statutes besides the PRA (see Appendix C of our Public Records Act publication); all agencies are required to publish a list of such exemptions and prohibitions found outside the PRA.

Statutory exemptions must be narrowly applied. Agencies can only redact those portions of a record to which the exemption applies and are required to produce the remainder of the record.

If a record is redacted or withheld in its entirety, the agency needs to identify the specific exemption authorizing redaction or withholding and provide a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the withheld record. This identification is commonly done via an exemption log.

  • Exemption Log (2016) –This exemption log example can be modified to create your agency’s exemption log that clearly identifies the records that have been redacted or withheld, states the RCW citation that provides the basis for the exemption, and a provides a brief explanation of the redaction or withholding.
  • The Washinton Association of Public Records Officers (WAPRO) PRA Toolkit (WAPRO members only) also has a sample exemption log, exemption key, and exemption letter that can be modified for your agency's own use.

Common Exemptions for Cities, Counties, and Special Purpose Districts

The PRA itself contains numerous exemptions, but a smaller number of exemptions are more commonly used by local governments. Below is a brief overview of these commonly used exemptions.

Attorney Work Product and Attorney-Client Privileged Communications

An attorney’s work product is exempt under RCW 42.56.290 and attorney-client privileged communications are exempt under RCW 5.60.060(2)(a) (considered an “other statute” which exempts or prohibits disclosure under RCW 42.56.070(1)).

Drafts

Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated are exempt under RCW 42.56.280. The exemption goes away once the record is publicly cited by an agency in connection with any given action.

Employee Hiring

The following information is exempt in the employee hiring context (RCW 42.56.250):

  • Test questions, scoring keys, and other examination data used to administer a license, employment, or academic examination.
  • Applications for public employment, including the names of the applicants, resumes, and other related materials submitted with respect to an applicant.

Employee/Official Personal Information

  • Personal information in files maintained for employees, appointees, or elected officials of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy is exempt (RCW 42.56.230(3)). A person’s right to privacy is invaded or violated if disclosure would: (1) be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public (RCW 42.56.050).
  • The following employee and volunteer information held by the agency in personnel records, public employment related records, volunteer records, or agency mailing list is exempt: residential addresses, residential telephone numbers, personal wireless numbers, personal email addresses, social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, identicard numbers, and emergency contact information (RCW 42.56.250(4)).

Financial Account Numbers

RCW 42.56.230(5) exempts credit card numbers, debit card numbers, electronic check numbers, card expiration dates, or bank or other financial information as defined in RCW 9.35.005 including social security numbers.

Investigative, Law Enforcement and Crime Victim Records

Some of the more commonly used exemptions under RCW 42.56.240 for investigative and law enforcement records are:

  • Specific intelligence information and specific investigative records compiled by investigative, law enforcement, and penology agencies if nondisclosure is essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy. A person’s right to privacy is invaded or violated if disclosure would: (1) be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public (RCW 42.56.050).
  • The identity of crime witnesses and victims or people who file complaints with investigative, law enforcement, or penology agencies, if disclosure would endanger any person’s life, physical safety or property or if nondisclosure is requested at the time the complaint is filed.
  • The identity of child victims of sexual assault who are under the age of 18.
  • Body camera recordings to the extent nondisclosure is essential for the protection of any person’s right to privacy (a list of specific circumstances where the recording is exempt is set forth in the statute). A person’s right to privacy is invaded or violated if disclosure would: (1) be highly offensive to a reasonable person; and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public (RCW 42.56.050).

Real Estate Transactions

The following real estate-related records are exempt, but only until all properties that are part of the project have been purchased, sold or leased or after the project is abandoned (RCW 42.56.260):

  • Real estate appraisals made for or by an agency for purposes of acquiring or selling property (except no appraisal may be withheld for more than three years after creation)
  • Documents prepared for the purpose of considering the selection of a site or the acquisition of real estate by purchase or lease, or for the purpose of considering the minimum price of real estate that will be offered for sale or lease, when public knowledge would cause likelihood of increased prices, including records prepared for executive session

Religious Affiliation

All records that relate to or contain personally identifying information about an individual’s religious beliefs, practice, or affiliation are exempt under RCW 42.56.235.


Recommended Resources

For more comprehensive guidance on exemptions, see the following resources:


Last Modified: February 20, 2020