Retirement System Must Disclose Names Of Those Receiving Largest Pensions

In 2004, the Detroit Free Press sent a letter to the City of Southfield, Michigan, requesting a list of the individuals who receive the 20 largest pension payouts from the City’s general employee and police and fire retirement systems. The City released the amounts of the pension payments, but declined on privacy grounds to release the names of the individuals receiving the payments. The Free Press challenged the City’s decision in court.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the City to disclose the names of the recipients of the pensions. The Court’s decision focused on an exemption from Michigan’s public records law that does not allow disclosure “of personal information if public disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.” The Court found that the names of pension recipients combined with their pension amounts was not “personal information.” In the Court’s view, “the information does not solely relate to private assets or personal decisions. Rather, the pension amounts reflect specific governmental decisions regarding retirees’ continuing compensation for public service.

Therefore, the pension amounts are more comparable to public salaries than private assets.”

The City also argued that the retired police officers’ names should be exempt because the information would either identify law enforcement officials or disclose the personnel records of law enforcement agencies, both of which are conditionally exempted from disclosure under the Michigan statute. The Court was not impressed, holding that “because the requested information involves retirees, the City fails to demonstrate how the information would identify the pension recipients as law enforcement officers. Although the retired police officers were law enforcement officers once, the City has not presented any evidence suggesting that they are still employed in that capacity.”

Detroit Free Press, Inc. v. City of Southfield, 2005 WL 3484628 (Mich.App. 2005).

This article appears in the February 2006 issue