A sergeant referred to in the court’s opinion only as Jane Doe works for the Mansfield Police Department in Ohio. Doe supervised Officer Freeman Nixon. Two events led to the breakdown of their relationship.
First, Doe showed Nixon a picture she received of him with a “humongous penis drawn over his body.” Nixon testified that when Doe showed him the picture, it was in “more of a joking manner,” rather than out of concern. Doe, for her part, testified that when she showed Nixon the photo, “he laughs, I laugh. He said they’re just jealous, end of conversation.” Nixon did not immediately report the incident, which he later described as sexual harassment.
More contention resulted when, a few months later, Nixon allegedly used department resources to wash his personal vehicle. Doe contended that she had previously warned Nixon about this behavior, so she wrote him up for insubordination. Nixon, however, felt that Doe told lies about him in filing this report, because he “was never given a direct order not to wash a car.”
Upset that Doe appeared to be treating him unfairly and believing that her report had threatened his employment, Nixon reported Doe for the graphic photograph incident. According to Nixon, he was never updated on the status of this complaint, so after six months he made a public records request for Doe’s personnel file.
David Remy, the City’s HR director, sent Doe’s personnel file to Nixon. As part of Department’s hiring process, they collected an investigative packet that included the report from Doe’s prior polygraph examination with the Ohio Highway Patrol. The report contained admissions by Doe about unwanted sexual advances by a supervisor, theft from a prior employer, driving while under the influence of alcohol, suspension from college due to low grades, and abuse in her relationship with her former fiancé.
Also in the file was a three-sentence account about Doe’s sexual behavior sometime between the ages of seven and eighteen. Remy considered the account “just an unflattering incident in Doe’s life,” part of which may have occurred while she was a minor. Although Remy recognized that such an incident would be embarrassing, possibly even humiliating, to a person, he ultimately determined that Ohio law did not provide an exception to disclosure. Remy did not consider federal privacy law in coming to this conclusion nor did he consult anyone before sharing Doe’s file.
For his part, Nixon showed another sergeant and two officers Doe’s personnel file. Doe then felt compelled to tell her husband about the disclosed information for the first time. She suffered from depression, anxiety, and PTSD after the release of the information and sought treatment from two mental health professionals.
Doe sued Remy, Nixon, and the City, alleging a breach of her privacy rights. The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit, citing the principle of qualified immunity. The Court held that “qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that shields government officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
“We need not address the complicated constitutional issues because, even if the release of Doe’s statement rises to the level of a constitutional violation, the law was not clearly established. Here there is a compelling state interest in disclosure of public records. The Ohio Public Records Act requires the state to make public records available upon request. This requirement sheds light on the state government’s performance, thereby enabling Ohio citizens to understand better the operations of their government.
“Indeed, such a requirement will expose government activity to public scrutiny, which is essential to the proper working of a democracy because scrutiny of public records allows citizens to evaluate the rationale behind government decisions so that government officials can be held accountable. And to support that compelling purpose, the Supreme Court of Ohio has time and time again explained that the Public Records Act must be construed liberally in favor of broad access, and any doubt should be resolved in favor of disclosure of public records. Ohio courts have also held that reports from polygraph examinations completed by police officers for employment purposes constitute public records subject to disclosure.
“Here, if the City’s interest in disclosure is to allow citizens to evaluate the rationale behind government decisions so that government officials can be held accountable, then removing information that potentially relates to a police officer’s fitness to perform her job arguably defeats the purpose of the disclosure. We find that the law was not clearly established in this case.
“It would not be clear to a reasonable official that Doe’s statement was exempt from disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act. The right at issue was thus not clearly established. This conforms with our narrow interpretation of the right to privacy. We must exercise the utmost care whenever we are asked to break new ground in this field, lest the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause be subtly transformed into the policy preferences of the members of this Court.”
Doe v. City of Mansfield, 2023 WL 1822208 (6th Cir. 2023).
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.
Also in the May 2023 issue:
- What Starts The Statute Of Limitations Under A Bill Of Rights?
- Political Patronage Case Subject To Arbitration
- Unfair Labor Practice For Supervisor To Criticize Union Membership To New Employees
- Sergeant Loses Lawsuit Over Release Of Polygraph Report Containing Sexual History
- ‘Strong Fire Chief’ Statute Does Not Grant Lifetime Job
- No Privacy Protections Against Disclosure Of Officers’ Names
- Doctor’s Opinion Not Required For ‘Actual Knowledge’ Of PTSD
- Dysfunction Is Not Enough To Show Hostile Work Environment
- Fort Worth Police Chief Loses Due Process Claim
- Required Treatment And The ‘Reverse’ Heart-Lung Presumption
- Q & A