In Predisik v. Spokane School District No. 81, the Washington Supreme Court holds by a 5 justice majority that disclosure of employer investigation records that reveal an employee’s identity do not implicate employee privacy rights under the Public Records Act (PRA) when the records do not describe the allegations being investigated. The court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals below, ordered disclosure of the records without redaction, and denied the employees’ requests for injunctive relief under the PRA.
Two media outlets submitted public records requests to Spokane Public Schools for documents concerning employees on administrative leave. In response, the District produced three records: an “administrative leave letter” placing an employee on leave and banning the employee from district property and from talking with students about the matter; and two spreadsheets that documented the amount of leave pay accumulated by the employee named in the leave letter and a second employee also on leave. None of the documents detailed the allegations’ contents.
Under the employee personal information exemption, only an employee’s personal information that implicates privacy interests (i.e., matters concerning the private life) may be withheld under the PRA, and only when the information’s release would violate the employee’s right to privacy. Here, the Court held that the existence of a public employer’s investigation is not a “private” matter, but merely an administrative process arising from the employee’s public employment. The existence of the investigation “is not akin to a family quarrel or a humiliating illness, nor does it touch on the employee’s life at home.” The investigation itself is therefore not a “closely held private matter that gives rise to a privacy right under the PRA.” Whether the allegations are later substantiated, or not, “makes no difference … because the records do not describe them.”
The 4 dissenting justices would have held that employees have a privacy interest in their identities when connected to the existence of an employer investigation into not yet substantiated allegations of misconduct, and that disclosure would violate their rights to privacy. The employees’ identities remained a private matter because unsubstantiated allegations do not bear on employee performance. The employees’ identities should have therefore been redacted from the records prior to disclosure.