Names Of Employees Receiving Unsubstantiated Complaints Not Subject To Disclosure In Washington

Washington has a fairly typical freedom of information law, known as the Public Disclosure Act (PDA). The policy behind the PDA is to ensure “full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level,” while remaining “mindful of the right of individuals to privacy.” The PDA exempts from disclosure “personal information and files maintained for employees of any public agency to the extent the disclosure would violate their right to privacy.”

The Washington Supreme Court was recently faced with the question of whether the names of employees who receive unsubstantiated complaints are protected by the privacy exemption in the PDA. The case involved a request by the Seattle Times newspaper seeking copies of all records maintained by the Bellevue School District relating to allegations of teacher misconduct in the last ten years. The School District notified 55 current and former teachers that the records were gathered in response to the Times’ request. Thirty-seven of the teachers filed a lawsuit to enjoin the School District from releasing their records, arguing that disclosure of the records identifying them as subjects of sexual misconduct allegations violated their right to privacy.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the teachers. The Court found that “when a complaint regarding misconduct during the course of public employment is substantiated or results in some sort of discipline, an employee does not have a right to privacy in the complaint. An unsubstantiated or false accusation of sexual misconduct is not an action taken by an employee in the course of performing public duties. The fact of the allegation, not the underlying conduct, does not bear on the teacher’s performance or activities as a public servant. The mere fact of the allegation of sexual misconduct toward a minor may hold the teacher up to hatred and ridicule in the community, without any evidence that such misconduct ever occurred. Thus, we hold that teachers have a right to privacy in their identities because the unsubstantiated or false allegations are matters concerning the teachers’ private lives and are not specific incidents of misconduct during the course of employment.”

Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District No. 405, 189 P.3d 139 (Wash. 2008).

This article appears in the October 2008 issue