Monday, January 25, 2016

CPRA May Grant Access to Personnel Records When There is a Strong Public Interest in Disclosure

In Caldecott v. Superior Court of Orange County, the Fourth Appellate District found records associated with a personnel complaint were subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act ("CPRA"). The court also found an employee's motivation for requesting the documents was irrelevant. Also, whether or not the employee already had the documents was irrelevant.

Caldecott involved a former Newport-Mesa Unified School District employee's request for documents associated with a personnel complaint. John Caldecott worked as an Executive Director of Human Resources. He filed a personnel complaint against District superintendent Fred Navarro. Caldecott alleged Navarro created a hostile work environment and committed misconduct in regards to employee salaries. The District did not take any official action against Navarro, finding Caldecott's allegations unsubstantiated. Subsequently, the District fired Caldecott without cause. Caldecott alleged he was fired in retaliation for filing a complaint against Navarro.

Caldecott requested documents under the CPRA that were associated with his complaint against Navarro. Caldecott requested copies of the District's response to his complaint, and an e-mail Caldecott sent to the District's board regarding the response. Caldecott already had the documents, but he wanted the freedom to publicly disclose the documents without fear of liability. The District denied Caldecott's request claiming disclosure would cause an invasion of personal privacy. The District also denied his request because of "the potential impact of an unjustified accusation on the reputation of an innocent public employee."

The Court of Appeal ruled the documents were subject to disclosure under the CPRA. Caldecott's motivation behind his request and the fact that he already had the documents were irrelevant. Rather, the court weighed the potential harm to Navarro's privacy interests against the public's interest in disclosure. The court found a strong public interest in judging how Navarro responded to Caldecott's claims, especially in light of Caldecott's termination without cause. The court also found a strong public interest in assessing how the District's elected board treated the serious misconduct allegations against its highest ranking administrator. The court awarded Caldecott attorneys fees and costs for successfully challenging the denial of a CPRA request.

This case did not concern the confidentiality of peace officer personnel records. Penal Code section 832.7 creates additional protections for peace officer and correctional officer records.