July 2016 Newsletter – School Districts
Court Reminds District that Disciplinary Documents Are Subject to Disclosure under the CPRA
Internal disciplinary documents may not be confidential, especially when they involve high ranking employees in matters of public concern. In Caldecott v. Superior Court (2015) 243 Cal. App. 4th 212, a school district fired its executive director of human resources a few weeks after he filed a complaint alleging hostile work environment and financial improprieties on the part of the superintendent. After the complaint, the district’s lawyer was authorized to hire an investigator to look into the employee’s claims. Subsequently, the Board sent the employee a written statement, which allegedly stated “[Employee’s] complaint regarding… does not warrant any action by the Board beyond this response.”
Pursuant to the California Public Records Act, the employee requested the district provide copies of documents relating to the complaint, including the district’s response. The district denied the request, stating it could not disclose them “because of the potential impact of an unjustified accusation on the reputation of an innocent public employee,” relying on exemptions to the Public Records Act which protect of documents, “the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The district also relied on the deliberative process exemption, which protects documents concerning the substance of conversations, discussions, and deliberations advice, opinions, and recommendations by which government policy is processed and formulated.
The court independently reviewed documents in camera, meaning it reviewed the documents in private to determine whether they to support a reasonable conclusion that they are subject to disclosure. After reviewing the documents, the court rejected the district’s claim and ordered the release of the documents. The court interpreted all of the exemptions narrowly. The court found that the public has a significant interest in the professional competence and conduct of a school district superintendent as well as how the Board responds to allegations of misconduct committed by the District’s chief administrator. The court went on to reject the argument under the deliberative process exemption, reiterating that the public interest outweighs privacy concerns in this particular case.
School district and community college districts should be reminded that even the most sensitive communications are subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
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