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Nonprofit Law/Inspecting required records of a non profit, being charged for doing so?

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Question
In Washington State, can a non profit corporation charge a member for mere inspection (vs copying costs) of records? RCW 24.03.135 says certain records (minutes of board meetings, financial records, list of members, etc.) must be available for inspection, and "Cost of inspecting or copying shall be borne by member." Can member be charged for staff time while member "inspects", or reads, the records, vs just being charged for any copies? That seems to defy transparency goals but the phrase leaves room for thwarting investigation of board actions and expenditures - by threatening to charge for staff time when a regular member merely looks at records that the law otherwise requires be made available for inspection at reasonable times at the organization's place of business.   I'd like to think that any "cost of inspecting" to be "borne by member" would refer to any costs the member incurs, not the organization.  E.g. if the member hires a CPA or lawyer to inspect the records, or analyze them, during or after the inspection or copying.  That would be understandable. But to pay the organization's costs of the inspection?  And what could those even be other than staff time, which could be a black hole depending on what they claim was involved in time to gather the documents, watch the member read them, etc?

Answer
I have in my profile that this free forum is only for general questions about IRS federal exemption issues of 501(c)(3) organizations. Your matter is controlled by state law and states may differ somewhat with how they would treat such issues. Even though this forum is not for such state law issues, I did quick search in Washington State cases and found no hits with the search "Cost of inspecting or copying shall be borne by member" and there were no results. https://goo.gl/B3BQiJ

I would not be able, therefore, to give you my opinion as to how a Washington State court would interpret that statute.  You could check in a local law library because most of those inspection statutes were passed relatively recently by the States and you may find, in an Annotated version of the Statutes an explanation of the legislature's intent.  Off the top of my head, though, I do not agree with your though that  "cost of inspecting" to be "borne by member" would refer to any costs the member incurs, not the organization. One of the standard axioms of statutory interpretation is that like matters are interpreted in a like way. We know that "costs of copying" would refer to the general procedure that the organization would not allow the originals to be taken out of their office but that the copies would be made in the office and the organization's cost of copying would need to be paid by the member.  Similarly "costs of inspection" would then refer to the organization's costs for allowing the inspection. The costs must be no more than the actual, reasonable costs.

Perhaps a Washington State attorney who is experienced in the area of nonprofits would have a better analysis.

Harvey Mechanic
Attorney at Law
Harvey108@hotmail.com

P.S. This response is intended to be a general statement of law, should not be relied upon as legal advice and does not create an attorney/client relationship. For me to consider your individual situation and how the law applies, I would need to gather more information.  

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Harvey Mechanic

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I am an attorney and I volunteer time to answer general questions about U.S. Federal income tax issues of nonprofit 501(c)(3) public charities only. Those questions could be about establishing and maintaining legal requirements for such non-profit organizations in the United States, including Internal Revenue service filings and requirements. I will not be working on this free forum to answer questions about Nonprofit's possible unrelated or for-profit businesses or how to fill out forms. This forum is only for general questions about federal tax law, not as the law applies to your specific situation. If you do not make your question public then I will not be spending much of my donated time on answers that would not benefit the public. If you have other questions, please contact me at Harvey108@hotmail.com I will reply from my email. In any case, do not reveal confidential information to me until after I have contracted with you to provide personal legal services. My responses on this forum are intended to be general statements of law, should not be relied upon as legal advice, and do not create an attorney/client relationship. For me to consider your individual situation and how the law applies, I would need to gather extensive information about the situation. To search my previous answers you can do a Google search by "site:allexperts.com/q/nonprofit" without the quotes and then add your search terms before hitting enter.

Experience

I have been practicing law and especially the law of nonprofit organizations since 1990 when I was admitted to the New York Bar and I have maintained my status with the Bar since that time.

Education/Credentials

B.S. Columbia University in New York City, 1970

J.D. (Law Degree) Brooklyn Law School, 1990 -- Cum Laude.


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