California County Pension Amounts Not Shielded From Disclosure

California’s County Employees Retirement Law provides: “Sworn statements and individual records of members shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed to anyone except insofar as may be necessary for the administration of this chapter or upon order of a court of competent jurisdiction, or upon written authorization by the member.” When the Sacramento Bee newspaper requested the pension benefits of all Sacramento County retirees receiving more than $100,000 a year in retirement benefits, a lawsuit resulted as to whether the privacy provision in the Retirement Law shielded the information from disclosure.

The California Court of Appeals sided with the Sacramento Bee and ordered the information disclosed. The Court reasoned that “exemptions from the general rule of disclosure are construed narrowly, we conclude that pension amounts are not part of the ‘individual records of members’ protected by the Retirement Law. Based on legislative history, we construe that phrase narrowly to mean data filed with the retirement system by a member or on a member’s behalf, not broadly to encompass all data held by the retirement system that pertains to a member.”

In so ruling, the Court had to deal with the section in the statute stating that “individual records” of retirees “shall be confidential.” The Court’s treatment of the issue was brief: “Similarly, ‘individual’ commonly means ‘of, belonging to, arising from, or possessed by an individual.’ (Webster’s 3d New Internat. Dict. (1971) p. 1152.) Under this view, purely personal information ‘supplied by’ a member such as a home address or spouse’s name would fall within a member’s ‘individual’ record, but the records of how much money is given to the member by the retirement board, and how that amount was calculated (years of service, position held, date of retirement, and so forth) would not.”

The Court also concluded that the retirement system “has not shown the privacy interest served by nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.” The Court ordered the names and pension amounts of retirees disclosed, but not the retirees’ home or e-mail addresses, telephone numbers or social security numbers.

The Court commented that “much of the briefing by the retirement system argues disclosure is bad policy that will expose its members – many of whom are elderly – to unwelcome attention, obloquy, and financial predation. However, this Court does not legislate. The retirement system’s remedy properly lies ‘on the other side of Tenth Street, in the halls of the Legislature.’”

Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System v. Superior Court, 2011 WL 1797199 (Cal. App. 3 Dist. 2011).