Employee Personnel Records: Less Confidential Than You May Think
In Marken v. Santa Monica Unified School District, a School District investigated a complaint that a high school teacher had sexually harassed a 13 year old student. The District determined that the teacher had violated the sexual harassment policy and issued him a reprimand. The California Court of Appeal recently held that, upon request and despite the teacher’s objection, the District had to release the investigation report and reprimand.
The California Public Records Act (CPRA) generally gives the public the right to inspect any public record. But the CPRA exempts from disclosure “personnel, medical, or similar files the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Court held that, although the teacher had a significant privacy interest over the requested documents, there is no unlawful invasion of privacy if the invasion is justified by a competing interest – strong public policy supporting transparency in government.
The Court stated that a complaint of misconduct which is upheld by the agency or results in discipline must be disclosed. If the complaint is not sustained, it is still subject to disclosure if it is of substantial nature and there is reasonable cause to believe the complaint is well founded. Although the teacher did not occupy a high profile position, that factor is only relevant to determine when accusations of misconduct should be disclosed even if not well founded. The Court ordered the agency to disclose the investigation report and the reprimand with the names and personal information of the student and the witnesses redacted.
When Should an Agency Disclose Personnel Records
Prior cases involving CPRA requests for personnel records involved more extreme cases where the complaint involved violence and sexual abuse, or a high profile public official. But this case clarifies that if a charge of misconduct results in employee discipline, even minor discipline, the complaint must be disclosed upon request.
If a complaint is not sustained, determining whether it is subject to disclosure is a bit more fact intensive. The agency will have to assess the reliability of the information and whether there is sufficient support for the charge of misconduct, even if not enough for a sustained finding. The agency should assess the source of the information, the availability and credibility of any corroborating evidence, the subject employee’s own statements, and each party’s likely motives.
How Will This Case Impact Your Agency?
This case, which followed two previous cases on the same topic, carves out a fairly significant exception to the CPRA which, for many, seems counterintuitive. Most public employees would not expect any of their disciplinary documents or investigations into their alleged misconduct to show up in a newspaper. This case requires that all public agencies carefully evaluate any requests for such documents and if necessary seek legal counsel on whether the documents requested must be released. This case is not limited to school district employees. With the exception of police officer personnel records which are subject to some additional protection under the law, this case and the cases which have preceded it could require your agency to release such documents.