For years, California’s nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) has sought to document abuses at the state’s homes for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. About 1,700 highly vulnerable Californians, with conditions such as cerebral palsy and severe autism, live in these long-term health facilities, which are owned and operated by the state and regulated by the Department of Public Health.

CIR’s research into conditions at these facilities has been obstructed, however, by limited access to information. When CIR submitted a public records request to the Department of Health, seeking a decade’s worth of records relating to citations issued against a half-dozen facilities, the documents received were so heavily redacted that it was impossible to discern what had happened or what prompted the citations. Lawyers for the state contended the redactions were necessary because medical services provided to the developmentally disabled are confidential under California law.

Representing the center pro bono, a DWT team won a trial court ruling that more of the information should be released. However, that judgment was vacated in part by the Court of Appeal. The team turned next to the California Supreme Court. DWT’s Rochelle Wilcox, assisted by Tom Burke, along with co-lead counsel from Jassy Vick Carolan LLP, successfully petitioned the court for review. In February 2015 they won a unanimous favorable decision.

The team successfully persuaded the court that California’s Long-Term Care, Health, Safety and Security Act of 1973—which mandates that the public have access to citations that are issued to facilities found to be in violation of the law—was a special exception to California’s general rule of confidentiality. The court found that while the names of patients affected by the alleged violations are not open to public inspection, the underlying facts giving rise to citations are required to be available to the public.

As a result, CIR was able to review the citations in-depth, and in April, they published a groundbreaking story. It detailed a record of disturbing negligence and neglect that had directly caused the deaths of 13 people since 2002, and indirectly caused the deaths of six more. “The centers often not only failed to protect residents from harm, but also had an active hand in resident mistreatment and deaths,” CIR reported.