A&A: District denies teacher access to defaming emails

Q: As a school district employee, what are my rights regarding access to emails received by the district from an outside agency regarding me?  It involves accusations and I feel I have a right to know exactly what the allegations are. The school district has been slow to even acknowledge my request to see and get copies of the emails.

A: Under the Public Records Act (CPRA), a record prepared or maintained by a public agency is presumptively subject to disclosure, unless some exemption applies. Gov’t Code § 6253(b).

The Act does contain an exemption for “[p]ersonnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Gov’t Code § 6254(c).

Although this exemption is invoked when the public agency believes a request seeks information pertaining to identifiable public officials or employees that is private or controversial, it was developed to protect the intimate details or personal and family life, not official business judgments and relationships. Bakersfield City School Dist. v. Sup. Ct., 118 Cal. App. 4th 1041, 1045 (2004)Braun v. City of Taft, 154 Cal. App. 3d 332, 343-44 (1984).

Thus, when determining whether a particular portion of a personnel file may be disclosed, courts first consider whether disclosure of the information would compromise substantial privacy interests, and, second, whether the potential harm to privacy interests from disclosure outweigh the public interest in disclosure (the balancing test referenced by the university in its response to your request).BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court, 143 Cal. App. 4th 742, 755 (2006).

In the BRV case, the court held that “information as to the education, training, experience, awards, previous positions and publications of the (employee) is routinely presented in both professional and social settings, is relatively innocuous and implicates no applicable privacy or public policy exemption.”  BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court, 143 Cal. App. 4th 742, 759 (2006).

As a general matter, under the PRA, “disclosure is favored,” and therefore “all exemptions are narrowly construed.”
County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 4th 1301, 1321 (2009).

In your situation, it would seem that viewing emails received by the school district by an outside agency regarding you would not constitute the type of public invasion into one’s personal life that this exemption was intended to protect. After all, you are requesting information pertaining only to you, and the only individual who risks an invasion of privacy is you.

Also, pursuant to California Labor Code section 1198.5(a), “[e]very employee has the right to inspect the personnel records that the employer maintains relating to the employee’s performance or to any grievance concerning the employee.”

If the emails received by the school district concern your performance, you may be able to obtain access to them pursuant to this statute as well.

Given the foregoing, you may want to write to the school to request that it set forth its specific reasons for withholding any emails pertaining to the information received by the outside agency.  If there is a possibility of sensitive information regarding other employees, you may consider suggesting the school district redact all information not pertaining to you.

Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.