The California Court of Appeal has ruled that a public records requestor (a former school district employee) is entitled to records concerning his own allegations of misconduct against the district’s superintendent. (Caldecott v. Superior Court (12/21/15, No. G051917.) In ordering that the records be released, the court rejected the school district’s argument that disclosure was unnecessary because the employee already possessed the documents. The appellate court also refused to apply various exemptions contained in the Public Records Act (“PRA”), finding that disclosure of the documents outweighed any privacy interests and that the PRA “requires their production.”
John Caldecott worked for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District (“District”) as Executive Director of Human Resources. During his employment, Caldecott filed a complaint with the District against its superintendent alleging wrongful conduct. The District’s Board of Education sent Caldecott a written statement, which purportedly stated that “Caldecott’s complaint regarding . . . [Superintendent] Navarro does not warrant any action by the [b]oard beyond this response.” Subsequently, the superintendent—with board approval—terminated Caldecott’s employment, an action Caldecott alleged was in retaliation for his complaint.
Caldecott then submitted a public records request to the District requesting copies of the District’s response to his complaint against the superintendent and an e-mail Caldecott sent to the board regarding its response. The District denied the request for the documents, stating, in part, that it could not disclose them “because of the potential impact of an unjustified accusation on the reputation of an innocent public employee.” The District cited Government Code section 6254, subdivisions (c) and (k), which exempt production of documents “the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or a disclosure that is prohibited by law. The District also asserted that the records were exempt from production under the “deliberative process,” “official information” and attorney-client privileges.
Caldecott then brought an action in the Superior Court of Orange County, which ruled that—because he already had the documents in question—his request was moot (i.e., no longer at issue). Additionally, the court found the documents “were directly and inextricably linked to . . . Caldecott’s claim of a hostile and abusive work environment, which is an internal personnel matter exempt from disclosure under [the PRA].”
The California Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision, finding that the District’s argument that Caldecott already possessed the documents “completely misses the point” because Caldecott sought production under the PRA so he could publicly promulgate them without fear of any liability for doing so. It noted that “Caldecott’s request is akin to a reporter seeking documents for the purpose of disseminating information to the public.”
The Court of Appeal rejected the District’s argument that release of the documents invaded the superintendent’s personal privacy, noting that the potential harm to employee privacy interests did not outweigh the public’s interest in the documents. It further noted that there is a strong public interest in judging how the District’s superintendent responded to Caldecott’s claims, “especially in light of his decision to almost immediately terminate Caldecott without cause.” The appellate court added that, “there is the same strong public interest in assessing how [the District’s] elected board treated the serious misconduct allegations against its highest ranking administrator.” Additionally, the court determined that although some of the documents related to the hostile work environment claim (i.e., an internal personnel matter), they also pertained to the allegations of misconduct by the superintendent.
The Court of Appeal also rejected the application of the “deliberative process” and “official information” privileges found under Government Code section 6255, subdivision (a) and section 6254, subdivision (k), respectively. The appellate court found that the District failed to meet its burden in establishing that the public's interest in non-disclosure outweighed disclosure, pointing out that “not every disclosure which hampers the deliberative process implicates the deliberative process privilege.” The Court of Appeal awarded attorneys’ fees to Caldecott as the prevailing party for his superior court and appellate court actions.
Returning the case to the Orange County Superior Court for determination of which documents, if any, would be protected by the attorney-client privilege, the Court of Appeal added that “not all communications with attorneys are subject to that privilege” and “the mere fact nonprivileged information is relayed to an attorney does not shield the communication.” The appellate court directed the lower court to enter a new order for the District to produce the non-privileged documents, after redaction to delete personal information about unrelated third parties.
The Caldecott case reflects how California courts traditionally favor disclosure of public records. In recent years, the courts have steadily narrowed the ability of public agencies to withhold records. The Court of Appeal’s significant award of attorneys’ fees to the requestor is also a reminder to school districts to consider PRA requests carefully, weigh the impact of disclosure of responsive public records, and avoid costly and uncertain litigation whenever possible.
If you have any questions regarding this case, or any specific PRA matters, please feel free to contact our attorneys.
NewsFlash prepared by Brian D. Bock, L. Carlos Villegas and John W. Norlin.
Brian and Carlos are Partners in F3’s Inland Empire and Los Angeles offices.
John is Special Counsel in the F3 San Diego office.
This F3 NewsFlash is a summary only and not legal advice. We recommend that you consult with legal counsel to determine how this legal development may apply to your specific facts and circumstances. Information on a free NewsFlash subscription can be found at www.f3law.com.
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