California Court Orders Disclosure Of Retiree Names, Pension Amounts

The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (CFFR) filed a public records request with the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association, seeking the disclosure of the names of retirees who in any month in 2010 received $8,333 or more in pension benefits, the pension amounts, and how they were calculated. The Association argued that the records were exempt from disclosure because on balance the interests of retirees in privacy outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure.

The California Court of Appeals disagreed, and ordered the disclosure of the information. The Court found that “public employees lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in an expense the public largely bears after their retirement. The names of pension recipients combined with their pension amounts is not information of a personal nature. 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 to private assets. Retirees’ publicly funded pensions – like their previous salaries – are of interest to the public, and only through the disclosure can the public expect to prevent abuse.”

The Association asserted the balance tips in favor of nondisclosure because the public can glean all the information it needs on pension issues by using its Web site, which lists pension amounts without revealing payee names. The Court disagreed, finding that “the evidence amply supports that CFFR has a legitimate interest in the information and does not seek it merely because it wishes to embarrass top paid retirees or expose them to ridicule. The public is, of course, interested in knowing the total amount of pension payments, but it also has a legitimate interest in knowing how pensions are calculated. The Act’s core purpose is to prevent secrecy in government and contribute significantly to the public understanding of government activities.”

The Court then turned to the Association’s next argument, the balance tipped in favor of retirees’ privacy interests based on evidence that disclosure could subject them to harm. The Association submitted a declaration by a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who worked in the financial crime division. The declaration explained that criminals prey on the elderly, and they find targets “in a number of ways. Among the methods used are a search of obituaries in hopes of identifying an elderly widow or widower; review of websites maintained by senior centers to discern the identity of members or participants; and more recently, use of social media sites.” The declaration explains that criminals try to determine whether targets have money through a number of devices, including phony mail and telephone surveys, and the placement of newspaper ads that seek responses from persons in certain income groups.”

The Court found this evidence unpersuasive: “The declarations also, however, show that criminals can obtain information on elderly retirees and their financial conditions by other means. It is a fact of modern life in this age of technology that names can be used to obtain other personal information from various sources, but we conclude that is not sufficient under a state public records act to prevent the disclosure of public employee names. Further, the Association presented no evidence of any actual adverse consequences from previous disclosures, another factor we may consider. In California, there is a lengthy history of the disclosure of such information. CalPERS has been releasing the information since 1985. Yet, the record here reveals no untoward consequences.”

San Diego County Employees Retirement Ass’n v. Superior Court, 127 Cal. Rptr. 3d 479 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. 2011).

This article appears in the September 2011 issue