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Internal Emails Regarding Cabinet Member Complaints May Be Disclosable Public Records

  • Vol. 2016, No. 1
  • January 14, 2016

Vol. 2016,No. 1 | January 14, 2016

California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests frequently seek email correspondence between district officials and/or governing board members.  Recently, a California court held that where such records related to a cabinet member’s complaints about a superintendent, the public’s interest outweighed privacy and other concerns which might exempt the records from disclosure under the CPRA.  The fact that the cabinet member took copies of the records when leaving the district did not render his disclosure request moot.  The holding is a reminder that even “internal” emails between district officials and/or board members may be subject to public disclosure under the CPRA.

Background

A school district’s executive director of human resources filed a complaint against its superintendent concerning personnel matters and misuse of funds.  The executive director was terminated shortly after the district exonerated the superintendent.  He took emails related to his complaint and the district’s response when he left, but then requested the same records so that he could publically disclose them. The district denied his request.  The trial court agreed, ruling the documents were linked to the complaint – bringing them within the personnel exemption from disclosure.  The court also noted disclosure was not warranted because the executive director already possessed the documents.

Decision

The Court of Appeal reversed and ordered disclosure.  (Caldecott v. Superior Court (2015) ___ Cal.App.4th ____ [2015 WL 9283946].)  The Court explained records would only be exempt under the personnel exemption where privacy interests outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure.  It found the public had a strong interest in complaints alleging public malfeasance and the district’s response.  While not all complaints are subject to disclosure, the Court held disclosure may be appropriate – especially for higher ranking officials – even where the allegations are ultimately deemed unfounded.

The Court also concluded the “deliberative process privilege” and “official information” exemptions did not apply as the documents did not contain excerpts from discussions or information showing how policy was formed and there was no evidence disclosure would interfere with future discussions.  Further, it concluded these exemptions did not apply because of the public’s interest in the role of administrators and complaints against them.   Finally, the fact the executive director took copies when he left did not moot his request as the district had taken the position the records could not be disclosed to the public.

Impact

Courts may construe exemptions to the CPRA narrowly and in a manner which exposes the email communications of school districts and community colleges to public disclosure.  Awareness of the potentially public nature of what may otherwise be considered “internal” communications regarding complaints is important, as disclosure may be required even if the allegations are ultimately deemed unfounded.  The case illustrates the need for districts to develop email retention policies and to remain cognizant of the potential disclosure of written communications when dealing with such allegations.

Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you in developing your records retention policies or responding to a records request under the CPRA.

PRACTICE AREAS
  • Board Ethics, Transparency and Accountability