Q: Exactly what portion of personnel files are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act?
Specifically, I am trying to find out whether our child’s public school teacher — who was a probationary employee
- was terminated for cause, or
- was “non-reelected” (no reason required per union contract).
Our School District maintains that the vast majority of an teacher’s personnel file is non-public, with the exception of a very limited number of basic facts (such as title, salary, hire date, and employment status).
Are reasons for termination—termination letters, resignation letters, and non-reelection letters—considered exempt under the CPRA?
A: Under the California Public Records Act, the exemption set forth in Government Code 6254(c) is specifically designed for “[p]ersonnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Gov’t Code § 6254(c) (emph. added). Section Government Code 6254(c) “was “ ‘developed to protect intimate details of personal and family life, not business judgments and relationships.” Bakersfield City Sch. Dist. v. Superior Court, 118 Cal. App. 4th 1041, 1045 (2004). Additionally, “[e]very employment contract between a state or local agency and any public official or public employee is a public record which is not subject to [exemption].” Cal. Gov’t Code § 6254.8.
A request for personnel files ultimately involves a balancing test. “Under section 6254, subdivision (c), the court balances the public interest in disclosure against the individual’s interest in privacy.” Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. v. Superior Court, 228 Cal. App. 4th 222, 240, review denied (Nov. 12, 2014).
“When a public entity resists disclosure of an item in a personnel file, the court has the responsibility to balance the public interest in disclosure against the individual privacy interest at stake. A part of that balancing test is the determination of the extent to which disclosure of the requested item of information will shed light on the public agency’s performance if its duty.”
Teamsters Local 856 v. Priceless, LLC, 112 Cal. App. 4th 1500, 1519, 5 Cal. Rptr. 3d 847, 861 (2003), disagreed with on other grounds by Int’l Fed. of Prof. & Tech. Eng’rs, Local 21, AFL–CIO v. Sup.Ct., 42 Cal.4th 319, 335–36 (2007); BRV, Inc. v. Superior Court, 143 Cal. App. 4th 742, 755 (2006); see also Pasadena Police Officers Association v. Superior Court, 240 Cal. App. 4th 268, 292 (2015)
“A court must evaluate “whether disclosure would serve the legislative purpose of ‘ “ ‘shed[ding] light on an agency’s performance of its statutory duties.’ ” ‘ [Citation.] Where disclosure of names and addresses would not serve this purpose, denial of the request for disclosure has been upheld.” Teamsters, 112 Cal. App. 4th at 1520.
Based on the foregoing, Courts have found letters rescinding employment (i.e., termination) were subject to disclosure.
“Although reclassification may be embarrassing to an individual…in California, employment contracts are public records and may not be considered exempt…The letters were memoranda of [employee’s] appointment to a position and the rescission thereof; they therefore manifested his employment contract. Because the letters regarded business transactions and contained no personal information, the court properly ordered disclosure of the letters.” Braun v. City of Taft, 154 Cal. App. 3d 332, 342 (1984).
Additionally, California courts however have established a fairly liberal standard for disclosure of public records relating to complaints or investigations of misconduct by public employees.
They have held that there is a public policy against disclosure of “trivial or groundless charges,” but that
“where the charges are found true, or discipline is imposed, the strong public policy against disclosure vanishes; this is true even where the sanction is a private reproval. In such cases a member of the public is entitled to information about the complaint, the discipline, and the ‘information upon which it was based.’” American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees v. Regents of the University of California, 80 Cal. App. 3d 913, 918 (1978) (emphasis added).
However, personal preferences and goals, as well as evaluations, have been held to be exempt from disclosure. See Versaci v. Superior Court, 127 Cal. App. 4th 805, 819-820 (2005).
Moreover, to the extent any information you seek is exempt from disclosure, the District has the duty to redact that information while releasing the rest of the document. Gov’t Code § 6253(a); Braun v. City of Taft, 154 Cal. App. 3d at 344–45 (1984)(personal information on salary card, including phone number, birth date, address, social security and credit union numbers, was personal and could have been redacted to remove privacy concerns in disclosable document).
You might want to write back to District letting it know that the personnel exemption does not seem to apply information you seek regarding resumes/qualifications, job offer letters and termination/resignation letters (citing to Braun v. City of Taft), and that if it continues to invoke this exemption, it needs to explain how non-release of the agreement outweighs the public interest in release of the agreement. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
You might also remind the District that should you be forced to resort to litigation in order to enforce your rights under the Act, a court would “award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed pursuant to this section.” Gov’t Code § 6259(d).
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