Unredacted Emails Sent Through City Email Accounts Given Privacy Protection

“Chief Concerns” is an email account for messages submitted by employees of the Washington, D.C. Police Department to the Chief of Police through the Department’s internal, employees-only intranet. Chief of Police Cathy Lanier created the email account and announced to the Department employees that her office would hold the identities of employees who send email messages to the account in strict confidence, hoping employees would be less reluctant to submit questions, comments, or concerns to her. Lanier informed the Department employees of the “Chief Concerns” account and her pledge of confidentiality during roll call visits throughout the District, in the Department’s internal newsletter, and through her command staff. After Lanier created “Chief Concerns,” employees began sending emails to the account.

Rank-and-file officers in the Department are members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). The FOP submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the City, seeking copies of all emails sent to or from the “Chief Concerns” email account in the preceding month. The Department subsequently began producing emails, but redacted the names of the senders of the emails on the grounds that the identities were exempt from disclosure under the FOIA. The FOP then sued the City, demanding unredacted copies of the emails.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals agreed with the City and found that employees had privacy rights with respect to their names. The Court noted that “the redacted documents at issue in this case are eleven emails. The emails, though work-related, detail matters personal to the particular Department employees. For example, in one email, an author expresses concern about once again being moved to a different squad, ‘not because of production but due to lack of manpower in another unit.’ The author expresses frustration about losing ‘yet another’ assignment, and ‘not fully understanding the inner works of management.’ The author adds that the author is ‘here’ to ‘keep the streets safe while still having fun doing it.’ In another email, an author complains of being ‘menace[d]’ by another employee. Similarly, in another email, an author expresses concern about potentially releasing ‘private information,’ specifically personal cellphone numbers, to arrestees by completing an administrative form. In yet another email, an author shares news of an outreach program of which the author recently became aware and recommends that the Department take part in the program, explaining, ‘it was a similar program that dedicated me to the field of law enforcement over 20 years ago.’”

The Court found that “it is plain that such information is personal in nature. Furthermore, although disclosure of the contents of the emails constitutes only a de minimis privacy invasion when the identities are redacted, the privacy interest that would be compromised by linking the personal information to particular, named individuals is greater than de minimis. We cannot overlook the fact that these employees relied on the government’s pledge of confidentiality.”

The Court then turned to the heart of the matter, the question of “whether the public has an interest in disclosure. The trial court properly recognized that the public has a cognizable interest under FOIA in knowing the matters about which police officers in the field are concerned. We are persuaded, however, that this public interest has been adequately served by disclosure of the content of the emails with only the identities of the authors redacted. The unredacted portions of the documents that have already been released inform the public of the substance and content of the individual officers’ concerns. Disclosure of the redacted identifying information, meanwhile, would not shed any additional light on the government’s conduct.

“The FOP argues that release of the names and identifying information will further the public interest by revealing possible government misconduct. The FOP suggested that the Department may have responded differently to certain concerns depending on the rank of the employee. The FOP, however, offers nothing more than bare suspicion. Indeed, FOP does not point to anything in the record to support its suspicion of disparate treatment. Nor does our review of the record reveal anything to suggest that any alleged government impropriety might have occurred. The speculative nature of FOP’s asserted hypothetical public interest is simply insufficient for us to give it weight as a public interest.

“We conclude that FOIA does not require the District of Columbia to disclose the identities of the email authors.”

District of Columbia v. FOP, Metropolitan Police Department Labor Committee, 75 A.3d 259 (D.C. App. 2013).