Personnel Files Of Other Employees Can Be Redacted, But Not Sealed

Richelle Johnson was a police officer for the City of Baltimore, Maryland. Johnson retired, and then brought a lawsuit against the City, claiming that her retirement was forced, and that the City had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act in its treatment of her.

One of Johnson’s claims was that six non-disabled officers had been treated differently than her. When the City filed a motion to dismiss Johnson’s lawsuit, it submitted with its motion the personnel files of the other six officers. The City also filed a motion to “seal” (or keep from public view) the other personnel files as well as its motion and other materials submitted with the motion.

A federal trial court judge rejected the City’s motion to seal, finding that redaction of the names and other identifying information of the other officers was sufficient. The Court was convinced that there was a privacy interest in the files, citing the Maryland Public Information Act, which contains an exception from disclosure of the “personnel record of an individual.” Where the Court found the City’s argument foundered was that there was a less severe alternative to sealing – the redaction of names and other identifying information from the files.

As the Court phrased it, “I assume, without deciding, that the State of Maryland’s governmental interest in the confidentiality of personnel records is sufficiently compelling to justify a narrowly tailored sealing request, so as to overcome the First Amendment public right of access to court documents. The City has failed to convince me that less drastic alternatives to sealing would not provide sufficient protection.

“I am convinced that redaction of the comparator officers’ personnel records would provide sufficient protection of confidentiality interests. This is especially so because the Maryland Court of Appeals has recently decided that, once a record has been appropriately redacted to remove information that could connect a record to a particular individual employee, the redacted record is no longer a personnel record of an individual under Maryland law. The governmental interest in confidentiality of an unredacted personnel record of an individual abates once any individually identifying information has been redacted from the record in question.”

Johnson v. Baltimore City Police Dept., 2013 WL 497868 (D. Md. 2013).