Teachers Did Not Have Right To Privacy In Records That Did Not Contain Personal Information And Were Not Investigative
By Erica Shelley Nelson and Harrison Owens
In Predisik v. Spokane School District No. 81, the Washington State Supreme Court found that public employees did not have a right to privacy in public records that contained information relating to investigations of potential misconduct, but did not identify the specific allegations being investigated. In their lawsuits, two public school employees sued the District to prevent the disclosure of a leave letter and spreadsheets to two media outlets who requested the materials. The Supreme Court held that Washington law did not prevent the disclosure of the un-redacted materials, because they did not violate the employees privacy rights.
Anthony Predisik and Christopher Katke were employees of the Spokane School District No. 81. In late 2011 and early 2012, the District began to investigate Predisik and Katke after individuals made separate, unrelated allegations against them. Predisik and Katke were placed on administrative leave while the District investigated the allegations. Two media outlets submitted public records requests to the District while covering the allegations, seeking an administrative leave letter to Predisik and spreadsheets showing the amount of leave pay Predisik and Katke had accumulated through April 2012. The requested documents did not show any details of the alleged misconduct by Predisik or Katke or the investigation.
Predisik and Katke sued the District to prevent the disclosure of the documents. They argued that the documents were protected by Washingtons Public Records Act because they fell within exceptions to the Act that prohibited disclosure of certain records. The trial court found that Predisiks and Katkes identities were protected from disclosure, but not the records themselves, and ordered that the records be disclosed with Predisiks and Katkes names redacted. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial courts decision.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court and Court of Appeals, and ordered that the records be disclosed without any redactions at all. Washingtons Public Records Act requires government bodies to make all public records available for public inspection and copying, and allows only narrow exceptions. Predisik and Katke argued that the records should not be disclosed, because they contained personal information or they were investigative records.
First, Predisik and Katke argued that the records contained personal information that would violate their right to privacy if disclosed. The Supreme Court disagreed, and stated that:
[A] person has a right to privacy under the [Public Records Act] only in matter[s] concerning their private life.
The Court found that the records requested by the media outlets did not fall within this exception to the Public Records Act. The Court stated that the fact that an employer is conducting an investigation is not protected by a privacy interest. However, it noted that details of the misconduct or the investigation itself would be protected by the Act. Also, whether or not the identity of a public employee would be protected from disclosure depended on the circumstances of a case, such as if the allegation does not relate to the employees performance or activities as a public servant.
Second, Predisik and Katke argued that the records were investigative because they were essential to law enforcement, and should not be disclosed. To be protected under the Act, the record must be essential to law enforcement or to the protection of privacy. The Court found that the requested records were neither of these. The records were not being used by the police to investigate the misconduct, and the Districts investigation was not activity by law enforcement. The Court also stated that the records were not essential to the protection of privacy, for the same reasons described above.
In summary, the Supreme Court found that the records were not protected by the Public Records Act and should be disclosed to the media outlets. The Court explained that:
Public employees have no privacy right in the fact that they are being investigated by their public employer.
The Court found that Predisiks and Katkes privacy rights would not be violated if the requested records were disclosed, because the records did not contain personal information and were not investigative. Therefore, the Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and trial court and ordered that un-redacted versions of the records be disclosed.
This Supreme Court case is one of several Washington decisions in the last year that have broadened the scope of employee information subject to disclosure under the Act. The Court does appear to be splitting hairs to some extent by ordering disclosure of the records (that contain the fact of the investigations and the identities of the employees) while at the same time agreeing that details of the misconduct or the investigation itself would not be subject to disclosure under the Act. Regardless, I am not entirely surprised by this decision as the Court seems to be signaling its position that the Act should be liberally interpreted in favor of disclosure and transparency.
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