State’s serial lawsuit filer now aiming at Chimacum School District

Posted 12/23/20

A Whidbey Island man who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars from public records lawsuits against rural school districts and other small public agencies is now targeting the Chimacum School …

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State’s serial lawsuit filer now aiming at Chimacum School District

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A Whidbey Island man who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars from public records lawsuits against rural school districts and other small public agencies is now targeting the Chimacum School District.

Eric Hood of Langley filed a lawsuit against Chimacum schools in Jefferson County in late October.

Hood, who is not a lawyer but represents himself in most court cases he initiates, has pursued more than a hundred lawsuits against school districts and other government entities in Washington in the last five years by one estimate — and 37 lawsuits in 2020 alone.

In his court claim against the Chimacum School District, Hood said he asked for all records related to the state’s recent audit of the school district in October 2019.

The district supplied Hood with two installments of records that totaled
159 pages.

Hood said he never received any additional records, and filed the lawsuit in superior court Oct. 9. He has asked the court to order the school district to release additional documents, plus penalties, court costs and other fees.

In a response to the lawsuit, Curtis Leonard and Tim Reynolds, the attorneys for the Chimacum School District, said the district did not withhold any documents.

The attorneys said the district never received any additional response from Hood after he was provided with the public records he sought.

Hood would not speak publicly about his lawsuit when contacted by The Leader. 

Attorneys representing the Chimacum School District referred the newspaper’s request for comment to the school district.

But another attorney who has represented small governments in lawsuits filed by Hood said the Whidbey man has a long history of squeezing cash settlements out of thinly staffed small towns across the state.

ON THE OTHER SIDE

Jeffrey S. Myers is an Olympia-based attorney who has represented small cities against lawsuits filed by Hood.

Recent lawsuits include his defense of Morton (population 1,145), Springdale (population 320) and Tenino (population 1,850).

By Myers’ count, assisted by a search using Westlaw, an online legal research database used by attorneys, Hood has filed 109 lawsuits in Washington state.

“He typically picks on school districts in small towns,” Myers said. “He has made quite a good living at it.”

“Of these 109 lawsuits I don’t know how many have gone to a court decision; very few is my understanding. And almost all of them he is willing to take your check and settle his claims under the Public Records Act.”

Evidence gathered for a recent defense against Hood’s lawsuits revealed the Whidbey man has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by small governments in recent years.

“It’s our calculation that he has received over $700,000 in public funds to settle his claims regarding these audit types of requests,” Myers said.

Hood has pulled in more than $820,000 in funds from cases involving the Public Records Act since 2014, Myers said.

Hood, who is not a licensed lawyer, acts as his own attorney in most of his cases, “which tells me he doesn’t want to pay for legal fees,” Myers said.

Chimacum has a budget of roughly
$13.9 million and a current student enrollment of 713.

District officials have not talked about the lawsuit publicly, but during a closed-door special session Nov. 23, the school board privately talked about litigation.

After the session, the board unanimously voted to authorize legal counsel to negotiate on behalf of the Chimacum Board of Directors. 

Though Hood was once a public school teacher, there’s no indication that he has ever worked for the Chimacum district or has any link to Chimacum schools. 

In the cases where Myers has defended against one of Hood’s lawsuits, Myers said one question he always asks is if Hood has any business or other connections to the subject of his litigation.

“The answer to that is always no,” Myers said.

But Myers noted the Public Records Act doesn’t require such things. “It just requires you to make a request,” he said.

CITIES, COUNTIES, PORTS AND HOSPITALS

A search by The Leader of a Washington courts database found court records that indicate Hood has filed lawsuits in multiple courts across the state, including in 30 of Washington’s 39 counties. 

Besides Chimacum, Hood has pursued lawsuits against 30 other school districts in Washington, mostly small, rural ones. Several colleges have also been hit with lawsuits, as well as small cities and towns like Cosmopolis, Nooksack, Oroville and Mattawa.

Hood’s targets have included rural hospital districts, and water, utility and irrigation districts. At the state level, Hood has filed legal claims against the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs and Washington State Parks & Recreation.

LAWSUIT HISTORY STARTS ON WHIDBEY

The string of lawsuits by Hood started after his teaching contract was not renewed by the South Whidbey School District.

Hood filed a lawsuit against the city of Langley after the school district’s superintendent was voted in as mayor following his retirement from the South Whidbey School District.

Hood had earlier sued the school district, and filed a lawsuit against the city because he thought the mayor had retained personal notes from Hood’s lawsuit against the school district.

“He ended up agreeing to go away for $1,000,” Myers said.

A FAMILIAR PATTERN

Myers said the last several Hood lawsuits that he’s been hired to defend have followed “the exact same pattern.”

Letters that are sent requesting information from small local governments are nearly identical. The letters typically note the municipality has recently been audited by the state, and Hood asks for a copy of the audit as well as the local government’s response.

“His requests are almost all the same: I see that you’ve recently been audited and I want records about your audit,” Myers said.

Once a public agency responds and supplies the requested documents to Hood, he quickly disappears.

“He will typically respond, ‘Hey, looks like a clean audit. Anything else?’”

“And the response is, that’s what we thought you asked for,” Myers said. 

“He then says nothing,” the attorney added. 

“That’s kind of the bread-and-butter of his approach,” Myers said, and noted that Hood becomes “deliberately evasive” when he’s asked by cities trying to close out document requests if he has gotten all the information he had sought.

Hood doesn’t identify other additional documents he wants, and doesn’t raise objections to the records that are provided.

Those complaints come later.

“He’ll sit on that and wait for a year,” Myers said, waiting for the statute of limitations to nearly run out before filing a lawsuit.

“Then he accompanies the lawsuit, shortly before or shortly thereafter, with something to the effect of ‘I’m willing to settle with you,’ and offer between $18,000 and $25,000 to settle with people.”

Myer said there’s a strong incentive for municipalities to settle. The cost of defending a lawsuit are high, and agencies face an extremely high standard of burdens under the Public Records Act that add to the risks of prevailing.

While Hood once was fairly descriptive of the types of records he wanted to get, that’s no longer been the case, Myers said.

“He has grown increasingly less descriptive and more vague because people would actually give him the correspondence. And I honestly don’t believe that’s what he wants. He wants the lawsuit,” Myers said.

Myers said he knows why Hood is interested in such audit records.

“The truth is, he has none,” Myers said.

“He’s quietly typing away at his computer. Pandemic or whatnot, it doesn’t matter,” Myers said.

INSIDE THE SETTLEMENTS

A random review of recent lawsuits filed by Hood fit the pattern set out by Myers; an information request, records are released, and a lawsuit follows roughly a year later, with a settlement soon to follow.

Hood reached a settlement with the city of Marysville in December 2019 for $13,000.

Pullman paid Hood $10,000 in December 2019 to get him to drop a lawsuit that was filed in November 2019 over a records request filed in November 2018. 

A lawsuit over records in Mattawa was settled in May for $10,500.

In the settlement agreements, cities and other agencies admit no fault or wrongdoing.

“The city makes no admission of liability, and Hood makes no concessions with respect to the strength of the arguments advanced in his suit,” notes the settlement signed last December by Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson.

Many of the settlements include a confidentiality clause that prevents officials from talking about the lawsuits that Hood has filed.

The Mattawa settlement offer, for example, prevents officials from talking about the lawsuit or public records dispute, and notes “good faith efforts will be made to refrain from commenting except to refer inquirers to this agreement.”

UNLIKE ALL OTHERS

Myers has been a lawyer since 1986, and once served as an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington, later representing the Department of Ecology before joining a law firm in Seattle and later, the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office. For the past 22 years, he has been with the law firm of Law, Lyman, Daniel, Kamerrer & Bogdanovich.

While Myers can recall several other people in Washington who have filed multiple public records lawsuits in Washington state, they’ve all been different from Hood in one key way.

“They all have some interest in actually getting the records,” Myers said.

“I’ve not seen anyone go to the degree that Mr. Hood has, who has reached out to communities that he has absolutely no connection to; small towns in Eastern Washington that, frankly, I didn’t know existed until I got his lawsuit,” Myers said.

Springdale, he noted, only has a few employees beyond the town clerk.

“He picks on these entities that have very few employees and when you are the town clerk of a place like Springdale, you’re sort of the jack of all trades. A lot of the daily business falls on your shoulders,” he said.

When a request comes in, they try to respond as quickly as they can.

“And then you get one from Eric Hood and you think you know what he’s asking for, but the way he’s worded it, is a trap for the unwary.

“And then you find out that there’s some dissatisfaction for the first time when a process server shows up at your door,” Myers said.

Myers noted another difference between Hood and others who are well-known across the state for filing lawsuits over public access to records or meetings.

Arthur West — once called a “public records gadfly” by the Seattle Times — also used claims of violations of state laws as a money-making venture.

But Myers said West would go to the state Legislature and testify at virtually every hearing where the Public Records Act was the topic.

“I’ve never seen Eric Hood suggest ways on how the Public Records Act should function and how records should be more accessible,” Myers said.

COURT DATE TO COME

A date for the first hearing on the Chimacum lawsuit has not yet been set.

Attorneys for the school district filed a response to Hood’s lawsuit Oct. 29, and denied the allegations he made.

The attorneys said the district provided all the records that Hood had requested, and asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed. 

Other entities contacted by The Leader that are currently facing lawsuits brought by Hood also declined to comment.

Julie Huss, Vice President of Human Resources & Legal Affairs at Centralia College, said in an email that the state Attorney General’s Office will be handling the defense for the college.

“We don’t comment on active litigation,” Huss wrote. “The college sees the matter differently from Mr. Hood and will be sharing its view with the court in its written pleadings.”

Comments

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Tom Thiersch

Hood's actions give "requestors" a bad image, but lazy, low-information (or simply corrupt) agencies are themselves to blame for being targets of opportunity. If those agencies simply did the necessary training and paid attention to the Public Records Act's requirements, they would not be sued.

For example, if a request is not clear, the agency can - and should - require the requestor to clarify the request until the agency is certain that they know what is being asked for. Then, after conducting an "adequate search" (as defined in case law) and then producing the requested records, the agency will have a defensible position and any suit would likely be dismissed as frivolous, in which case the plaintiff would bear all of the legal costs.

The Leader also should document how much money Mr. Myers has extracted from agencies. He lost the case of Belenski v Jefferson County in 2016, a case that ended up before the state supreme court, in which the county was found to have illegally hidden over 300 million public records.

Thursday, December 24, 2020