California Supreme Court Rules Police Salary Records Are Public Documents

Reporters employed by the Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc., requested under the California Public Records Act that the City of Oakland provide them with the names, job titles, and gross salaries of all city employees who earned $100,000 or more in fiscal year 2003-2004. The request included those individuals whose base salary equaled or exceeded the $100,000 limit and those who earned a lower base salary but were paid $100,000 or more because of overtime work.

The City agreed to disclose salary and overtime information for each job classification, but refused to provide salary information linked to individual employees, claiming that individually identified salary information is exempt from disclosure. The newspapers appealed, and the case wound up before the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court held that the City should have provided the information to the newspapers.

The Court started with the proposition that “openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files.”

The heart of the Court’s opinion dealt with the arguments of the City and various labor organizations that salary information met the definition of “public records” in the California Public Records Act and was protected by a privacy exemption in the Act. The exemption states that there need not be disclosure of “personnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwanted invasion of personal privacy.”

The Court rejected the argument that the privacy exemption applied to salary records, reasoning that “this exemption requires us to balance two competing interests, both of which the Act seeks to protect – the public’s interest in disclosure and the individual’s interest in personal privacy. Balancing these interests, we conclude that disclosure of the salary information at issue in the present case would not constitute an unwanted invasion of personal privacy.

“In light of the strong public policies supporting transparency in government, an individual’s expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector. To the extent some public employees may expect their salaries to remain a private matter, that expectation is not a reasonable one and is, accordingly, entitled to diminishing weight in the balancing test we apply.
“Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how government spends its money. As we have observed in the context of the public’s right of access to court proceedings and documents, public access makes it possible for members of the public to expose corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, prejudice, and favoritism.”

The Oakland Police Officers Association argued that a separate section of California law exempted salary records pertaining to law enforcement officers. The statute relied upon by the Association provides that “peace officer personnel records, or information obtained from those records, are confidential.” The phrase “personnel records” is further defined by the statute to include “personal data, including marital status, family members, educational and employment history, home addresses, or similar information.” The Association contended that salary is “personal” because it relates to the individual and because most persons view their salary as a private matter.

The Court rejected the Association’s argument. The Court found that while “a public employee’s salary relates to a particular person, it is a matter of public interest, and not primarily a matter of the individual’s private business. Furthermore, we conclude that the Legislature did not intend the words ‘personal data’ to carry the broadest possible meaning, encompassing any and all information related to a particular officer. The examples of ‘personal data’ listed in the statute do not include information, such as salary, arising from the officer’s employment. Rather, they are the types of personal information that commonly are supplied by an employee to his or her employer, either during the application process or upon employment.”

International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers v. Superior Court, 165 P.3d 488 (Cal. 2007).

NOTE: In a similar case, Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training v. Superior Court, 165 P.3d 462 (Cal. 2007), the California Supreme Court held that peace officer names, the agencies employing peace officers, and their employment dates were not confidential “peace officer personnel records” and thus were subject to disclosure under California’s Public Records Act. In reversing the lower court decision that had held the record exempt from disclosure, the Court observed that “we consider it unlikely the Legislature intended to render documents confidential based on their location, rather than their content. It is apparent that the Legislature’s major focus in adopting the statutory scheme here was records of citizen complaints against police officers. To extend the statute’s protection of information not included within any of the enumerated categories merely because that information is contained in a file that also includes protected confidential information specified in the statute would serve no legitimate purpose and would lead to arbitrary results.”

This article appears in the October 2007 issue