TimCrewsCroppedA veteran but financially struggling small-town newspaper publisher facing a trial court order to pay a school district more than $56,000 in attorney fees was spared that fate today by a three-judge panel of the Third District, California Court of Appeal.

The court held that while Sacramento Valley Mirror publisher Tim Crews’ lawsuit for emails held by the Willows Unified School District lacked legal merit, it was not “frivolous”—neither intended to harass nor such an obvious loser that no reasonable lawyer would have taken the case.  Accordingly, the trial court had erred in finding Crews liable to pay the district’s attorney fees. Instead, the district will be required to pay Crews’ costs for appealing the matter.

Crews filed suit for emails to either confirm or refute a source’s allegation that the district superintendent had used public resources to affect the election of a county schools superintendent. The decision’s lasting effect is to encourage energetic and tenacious litigation to enforce disclosure of government records in California without fear of having an unsuccessful suit labeled as “frivolous” as the basis for paying the government’s attorney fees.

Supporting Crews before the Court of Appeal were two amicus curiae briefs: one representing a wide variety of journalism organizations and newspapers, and the other representing Californians Aware, of which Crews has since  been elected as Vice President; State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco); and former Assemblyman William Bagley, the author of the California Public Records Act.

The facts and rationale for the decision in Crews v. Willows Unified School District are here.  Background by Jim Newton of the Los Angeles Times is here.