Calif. Supreme Court Orders More Disclosure in DPH Abuse Citations

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court has unanimously sided with a group of investigative journalists over the Department of Public Health (DPH) in a dispute over public access to regulatory records.

In an investigation into abuse at state-owned and -operated treatment facilities for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, the Center for Investigative Reporting (the Center) requested from DPH copies of all citations issued to the seven largest state faculties. DPH responded to the request with 55 aggressively redacted citations, giving scant information about the actual violations.

DPH claimed that the redactions of private medical information were justified under the Lanterman Act. The Center, demanding more information under the Long Term Care Act, sued DPH for the unredacted citations.

Lower Court Rulings

The trial court ruled that the Long-Term Care Act and Lanterman Act conflicted. As such, the Long-Term Care Act, being a more specific statute, would take precedent over the Lanterman Act.

The appellate court agreed that the two statutes were in conflict, but believed they could be harmonized because both statutes aimed to protect to mental health patients. The court allowed names contained in the citations and information about the patient's mental, physical, and medical conditions to be redacted.

The California Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the Court of Appeals.

The More Specific and Later Enacted Statute Wins

The Supreme Court applied the rule that later-enacted statutes supersede earlier ones, and that more specific provisions take precedence over more general ones.

Like the trial court, the California Supreme Court concluded that the Long-Term Care Act is the more specific statute. The detailed nature of the statute's specifications for DPH citations showed that the Legislature believed in the importance of publishing the citations and considered patient confidentiality sufficiently protected by redacting patients' names.

Both sides stipulated that the Long-Term Care Act was enacted after the Lanterman Act.

As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that the Long-Term Care Act creates a limited exception to Section 5328.5 of the Lanterman Act. DPH must release the citations with the minimal redactions allowed under the Long-Term Care Act.

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