Court Supports Private Employee Information Under Right To Know Law | KingSpry

Commonwealth Court Supports Public Employee Privacy Rights Under the Right to Know Law

Photo of attorney Rebecca A. Young

Posted on January 31st, 2019
by Rebecca A. Young

On January 24, 2019, the Commonwealth Court held that personal information such as birthdates and places of residence for public employees should not be disclosed under the Right To Know Law. 

This decision, Governor’s Office of Administration v. Campbell, extends the balancing test established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2017 in Reese v. Pennsylvanians for Union Reform.

Request for Private Info Made Under Right To Know Law

In October, 2016, a request was made under the Right to Know Law (RTKL) for a list of all Commonwealth employees, their positions or job titles, dates of birth, and counties of residence.  The Office of Administration (OA) directed the requestor to a public database that included employee names, job titles, salaries, and other information.  OA denied access to the employee dates of birth and counties of residence.

In response to the requestor’s appeal to the Office of Open Records, OA provided affidavits to support its position that dates of birth and counties of residence are considered and treated as confidential information.  This information is used solely for the Commonwealth’s purposes as an employer, such as determining access to benefits, and for tax purposes.

OOR determined that dates of birth are not public information, but directed OA to disclose the county of residence of each Commonwealth employee. OA appealed.  The Court stayed its review of the case until after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Reese.

The Court’s Decision

The Commonwealth Court first reviewed the balancing test established in Reese.  There, a request was made to the State Treasurer for a list of all Commonwealth employee names, dates of birth and voting residences.  The request referenced Section 614 of the Administrative Code, which explicitly makes an employee’s county of residence, among other things, a public record.  The Treasurer initiated a civil action seeking a court directive, or declaration, that the RTKL exemptions apply to all public records, including those that are identified as “public” under the Administrative Code.  The Reese decision established that the right of public employees to privacy in their personal information set forth in the Pennsylvania Constitution may not be violated unless it is outweighed by a public interest in disclosure of that information.  Thus, governmental entities may not release personal information about public employees until they have conducted a balancing test to determine whether the right of informational privacy outweighs the public interest in dissemination of the information.

The Commonwealth Court then noted with favor that OA had already completed a balancing test and determined that employee rights to privacy prevailed.  In contrast, the requestor did not present any public interest in the records.  Further, the requestor stated that his ultimate goal was to find the home addresses of all Commonwealth employees, despite the fact that this information has already been deemed constitutionally protected in previous court opinions. The Court overruled the OOR determination and denied the request for records that would disclose the employees’ counties of residence.

What It Means

Public employees do not lose their constitutional right to privacy upon accepting employment with a governmental entity.  When the constitutional right to privacy is implicated in a RTKL request, the RTKL no longer governs the decision. Instead, the request is reviewed to determine whether the constitutional right to privacy is outweighed by a public interest in disclosure.

Bottom Line for Schools or Other Public Entities    

When a request is made for records that include personal information about employees such as age, addresses, phone numbers, etc, schools must weigh the right to privacy against the public interest in receiving the information. Given the constitutional nature of the privacy interest, a legal review of any disclosure of personal information may be advisable.  Contact your legal counsel or one of the attorneys at KingSpry.

 

This School Law Bullet is a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund is our editor. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.