Supreme Court Orders DSHS to Pay Attorney Fees

OLYMPIA, WA -- On Thursday, June 21, 2001, the Washington Supreme Court ordered DSHS to pay attorney fees to Kathleen O’Connor for its refusal to allow her access to public records she was entitled to under the State’s public records act. Ms. O’Connor had sought the public records for use in a lawsuit that she filed against DSHS on behalf of her son. While the exact amount of attorney fees to be paid by DSHS has not yet been ruled on, the O’Connors have so far requested over $31,000 in fees and costs.

“This has been a long battle,” said Denis Stearns, the Seattle attorney who filed suit on behalf of the O’Connors and represented them before the Supreme Court. “But it was a really important battle, and one that I am glad that the O’Connors were willing to fight on behalf of the citizens of this State. From now on, public agencies won’t be able to deny citizens the right to inspect public records just because a lawsuit has been filed against the agency.” Added Stearns “Everyone’s a winner today – except for DSHS, of course.”

In agreeing to accept direct review of the trial court’s orders prohibiting the O’Connors from using the public records act, the Supreme Court decided the case involved “a fundamental and urgent issue of broad pubic import.” Notably, the issue was deemed so important that a host of diverse public interests groups joined together to back the O’Connors’ position on appeal. These groups included the Building Industry Association of Washington, ACLU, Allied Daily Newspapers, Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Washington Association of Realtors, Washington State Farm Bureau, and the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association. Joining with the State to oppose the O’Connors’ position were the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The Kathleen O’Connor sued DSHS, on June 28, 1999. The lawsuit alleged that, Kevin Keo, a DSHS employee, had abused her son, and several other boys, while in DSHS custody at the Indian Ridge Juvenile Corrections Facility. The lawsuit also alleged that DSHS attempted to cover-up the abuse by transferring some victims to other facilities, telling the boys not to talk about the abuse, and never informing the boys’ parents. An investigation by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department resulted in Keo being charged with assault. He then plead guilty.

The Court’s decision can be found online at


Denis Stearns is a partner with the Seattle law firm of Marler Clark, where his practice is devoted to representing injured children and adults against corporations, public agencies, and insurance companies. The Marler Clark law firm is nationally known for its extensive experience representing victims of foodborne illness outbreaks, including the Jack in the Box and Odwalla E. coli outbreaks. Most recently, Marler Clark secured a $4.75 million jury verdict against the Finley School District in Eastern Washington after several children were infected with E. coli from contaminated beef served to them in a school lunch.