Q: We received a large TPIA request and don’t even know where to begin. It appears that some of the information sought is confidential and will require a decision request to the Attorney General’s office. Does sending a request for clarification/narrowing extend our initial 10-day deadline to seek an AG opinion?
A: Yes. When a governmental entity, acting in good faith, requests clarification or narrowing of an unclear or overbroad request for public information, the ten-day period to request an Attorney General opinion is measured from the date the entity receives the clarification.
School districts frequently receive requests for public information that are overbroad in scope, unclear, or both. The requestor usually demands that the information be provided within 10 business days of their request “as required by law” and then cites Section 552.221 of the Government Code. This practice, although widespread, wholly misconstrues the applicable law.
First, school districts are not required to provide information “within 10 business days” of receiving a request; rather, information must be “promptly” produced. Under the Act, “promptly” means “as soon as possible under the circumstances, that is, within a reasonable time, without delay.” The 10-day deadline requestors are referring to may be the timeline for a school district to request an Attorney General opinion, or it may also be the 10-day rule listed in subsection 552.221(d), which only requires that a school district notify a requestor if it is not able to produce information within 10 business days from receipt of the request (and provide a time when the information is expected to be ready).
A second issue with requestors asserting that information must be provided within 10 business days from a request is that it fails to recognize a school district’s right to seek clarification and narrowing of a request, as well as how that may impact the timeframe in which information must be provided or an opinion request submitted to the Attorney General’s office. Until 2010, it was unclear whether seeking clarification or narrowing extended a school district’s 10 business day deadline to seek an Attorney General opinion. But in City of Dallas v. Abbott, 304 S.W.3d 380, 387 (Tex. 2010), the Texas Supreme Court held that, “when a governmental entity, acting in good faith, requests clarification or narrowing of an unclear or overbroad request for public information, the ten-day period to request an Attorney General opinion is measured from the date the request is clarified or narrowed.”
Accordingly, when an overbroad or unclear request is received, a school district has 10 business days to seek clarification/narrowing from the requestor. Once a school district, in good faith, submits a clarification or narrowing request, the burden shifts to the requestor. If the requestor does nothing, the request expires by operation of law after 61 days. If the requestor clarifies or narrows their request, then the school district’s 10-day deadline to submit a request for decision to the Attorney General is measured from the date the clarification/narrowing is received by the school district. The school district may also seek additional clarification or narrowing, if appropriate, which further extends the deadline, assuming the school district is acting in good faith. Note importantly, however, that although sending a request for clarification or narrowing tolls the time to request an opinion from the Attorney General, sending a cost estimate does not.
In sum, there is no “10-day” requirement for providing public information. If a school district chooses to release information after receiving clarification, it must provide that information “promptly”—which essentially means “as soon as possible under the circumstances[.]” Failure to request an Attorney General opinion within 10 business days of receipt of a request or receipt of clarification, however, will result in the information requested being deemed public, thereby waiving the school district’s ability to raise what are considered “permissive exceptions” under the Act. So, while the 10-day benchmark is a good point of measure, it is not an absolute. For specific questions or additional information regarding your school district’s rights and obligations under the Texas Public Information Act, please contact your local school law attorney.