The California Supreme Court held in a unanimous decision issued February 19 that the state Department of Health (DPH) could not withhold the full-blown details of citations it issues for patient mistreatment and abuses to state-owned long term care facilities. State law requires all information surrounding the citation to be disclosed publicly, except for patient names, which must be redacted, the high court said.

The decision was a win for the Center for Investigative Reporting (Center), a nonprofit news organization looking into mistreatment of patients with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities residing in state-run long tem care facilities. The Center sought copies under the Public Records Act of DPH citations issued to the seven largest state-owned and operated treatment facilities.

DPH produced 55 citation records issued from 2007 through 2011 but in an “aggressively” redacted form, citing the patient and resident confidentiality requirements for mental health records of the Lanterman Act of 1967. According to the decision, one citation described injuries to a number of patients consistent with being unnecessarily tasered, but the redacted record reported only that the facility had violated certain regulatory provisions.

The Center argued, and the trial court agreed, that the more specific and later enacted Long-Term Care, Health, Safety, and Security Act of 1973 trumped the general confidential protections of the Lanterman Act. The Long-Term Care Act expressly states that DPH citations are public records, save for the names of the affected patients or residents, which must be redacted from the public version of the citation.

The appeals court reversed in part, finding the common purpose of the two statutes—to protect vulnerable populations—could be harmonized in a way that required the release of additional information, but not to the extent sought by the Center.

The California Supreme Court rejected the appeals court’s approach, instead finding that the two statutes clearly conflicted regarding the extent of information DPH could release publicly about the facility citations.

The high court said the Long Term Care Act was the more specific and later enacted statute and, for those reasons, was an exception to  the broad confidentiality protections of the Lanterman Act. “The particularly detailed nature of the Long-Term Care Act’s discussion of DPH citations demonstrates that the Legislature thought carefully and specifically about the importance of publishing citations and concluded that patients’ and residents’ confidentiality was adequately protected by redacting the names of the victims of a violation,” the high court concluded.

State Dep’t of Public Health v. Superior Ct. of Sacramento Cty., No. S214679 (Cal. Feb. 19, 2015).