Arizona Court Rules That Personal E-mails On County System Are Not Public Records

Stanley Griffis served as the County Manager for Pinal County, Arizona for 16 years. During his employment, Griffis signed a form acknowledging that e-mail messages sent or received on the County’s email system “are generally considered public records.” The County’s policies also provided that all e-mail messages were County property and “not the private property of the employee.”

In early December 2005, the County placed Griffis on administrative leave to investigate allegations he had purchased weapons with funds belonging to the County Sheriff without obtaining the Sheriff’s approval. Griffis retired from the County shortly thereafter. At about the time Griffis was suspended, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. (PNI) requested that the County provide it with all of Griffis’ incoming and outgoing e-mail messages from October 1 to December 2, 2005.

In January 2006, the County released approximately 700 of Griffis’ e-mail messages to PNI. In doing so, however, the County withheld or redacted several hundred of Griffis’ e-mails the County deemed personal in nature. After PNI threatened the County with legal action, the County agreed to release all of Griffis’ e-mails but first gave him an opportunity to seek court protection from the release of personal e-mails.

In February 2006, Griffis filed a lawsuit seeking to block the release of 120 e-mails he asserted were documents of a personal nature. The County then switched sides, and joined with PNI in taking the position that the e-mail was subject to public disclosure. The matter wound up in the Arizona Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals found that personal e-mails were not a “public record” as the term is defined by Arizona’s public records law. The Court found that there was a three-part definition of “public record,” including (1) records made by a public officer in pursuance of a duty; (2) records required by law to be kept, or necessary to be kept in the discharge of a duty imposed by law; and (3) a written record of transactions of a public officer in his office, which is a convenient and appropriate method of discharging his duties.

The Court also found that in any request for public records, a court would have to make the initial determination as to whether or not particular documents fell within the definition of public records.

The Court found that “the content of the e-mails is merely a record of Griffis’ personal affairs and falls outside the scope of information necessary for the public to have knowledge of the manner in which he conducted his office and performed his duties. We see no relation between Griffis’ purely personal e-mails and his official duties as County Manager.”

The Court was also concerned that Arizona’s public records law was enacted in 1975, “long before the development and current prevalent use of e-mail in government offices.” The Court observed that “although e-mails appear in document format, in many ways their purpose and widespread use in today’s society are analogous to a telephone call. Because of their transitory nature, the content of telephone calls generally would not be considered a public record. In our view, it defies logic to believe the Legislature intended to require every State officer or employee, for purposes of disclosure on a public records request, to record the content of all of his or her personal telephone calls or to create and maintain documentation of all activities, whether business-related or strictly personal, in which he or she engages on the job.”

Griffis v. Pinal County, 2006 WL 2194622 (Ariz.App. 2006).

This article appears in the September 2006 issue