Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Public Records Exemptions for Allegations

Like most states, Washington has an open records law—known as the Public Disclosure Act (“PDA”). These types of laws are to allow the public "full access” to governmental information subject to certain privacy exceptions. For example, the PDA exempts "personal information and files maintained for employees of any public agency to the extent the disclosure would violate their right to privacy."

The Washington Supreme Court recently addressed whether the identity of employees receiving unfounded complaints are exempt from disclosure under the PDA. In that case, the Seattle Times sought copies of years of records maintained by a school district involving allegations of teacher misconduct. Three-dozen teachers brought a lawsuit to prevent the school district from releasing the records as the disclosure would allegedly identify them as subjects of unfounded sexual misconduct allegations—which would violate their privacy rights.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the teachers and found that "when a complaint regarding misconduct during the course of public employment is substantiated or results in some sort of discipline, an employee does not have a right to privacy in the complaint.” However, an “unsubstantiated or false accusation of sexual misconduct … does not bear on the teacher's performance or activities as a public servant.” In fact, the mere “allegation of sexual misconduct toward a minor may hold the teacher up to hatred and ridicule in the community, without any evidence that such misconduct ever occurred.” The Court ultimately held that similar public employees “have a right to privacy in their identities because [] unsubstantiated or false allegations are matters concerning … private lives and are not specific incidents of misconduct during the course of employment."

The Court did not draw a bright line between unsubstantiated and substantiated complaints, leaving it for individual public entities to determine that; however, the reasoning behind this decision leaves this reasoning open for adoption in other states—including Iowa. See Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District No. 405, 189 P.3d 139 (Wash. 2008). For more information, see the October 2008 Public Safety Labor Newsletter

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