Apr 15

Amanda Butler

New WA Supreme Court Decision Regarding the Public Records Act

by Amanda Butler

Predisik v. Spokane Sch. Dist. No. 81, No. 90129-5, 2015 WL 1510443 (Wash. Apr. 2, 2015): Records that reveal an investigation of a public employee is occurring (but do not describe the allegations) are not exempt under the Public Records Act.

A recent Washington State Supreme Court decision Predisik v. Spokane Sch. Dist. No. 81, No. 90129-5, 2015 WL 1510443 (Wash. Apr. 2, 2015) affects public entities facing a public records request in the midst of an investigation of an employee.

In late 2011 and early 2012, Spokane School District began investigating two school district employees.  The District placed both employees on paid administrative leave during the investigation.  While the investigation was pending, two media outlets submitted public records requests to the District.  One request sought the “administrative leave letter given to [one of the employees]” and the other sought “information on all district employees currently on paid/non-paid administrative leave.”  The responsive documents at issue did not describe the actual allegations that served as the basis for the investigation.  The documents, did however, make clear that the employees were being investigated.

The two employees sought to enjoin disclosure of the documents alleging exemption under RCW 42.56.230(3) (personal information exemption) and 42.56.240(1) (investigative records exemption).  The District opposed the injunction.  The trial court found that the employees’ identities, but not the records, were exempt under 42.56.230(3).  The trial court ordered all of the records disclosed with the employees’ names redacted.  The Washington State Supreme Court granted review to clarify when the PRA will recognize a right to privacy in the identity of a public employee who is the subject of an open investigation by his or her public employer.

In analyzing RCW 42.56.230(3) (personal information exemption), the Court concluded that the PRA does not recognize a right of privacy in the mere fact that a public employer is investigating an employee.  Instead “[t]he investigation relates to a part of the employee’s life—his or her profession—that is feely exposed to the public.”  The Court held that the public has a legitimate concern in the identities of public employees who are the subject of investigations.  The Court noted the actual allegations the employer is investigating could implicate a privacy right under the PRA, but no such records were at issue here. 

The Court also analyzed RCW 42.56.240(1) (investigative records exemption) holding the leave letter and spreadsheets were not essential to law enforcement (as the District does not enforce the law) and were not essential to the protection of privacy.  Thus the records were not subject to the investigative record exemption.

The Court reversed and remanded with instructions to order the records at issue disclosed in their entirety without redaction.

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