OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – A divided Washington Supreme Court ruled Friday that public employees have no right to privacy when they are being investigated.
The court ruled 5-4 that a public employer’s investigation is an “act of the government, not a closely held private matter that gives rise to a privacy right under the PRA [Public Records Act].”
The ruling overturns an appellate decision in favor of two Spokane Public Schools teachers, who tried to block their names from public records about an investigation, claiming privacy rights.
Anthony Predisik and Christopher Katke had been on paid administrative leave since 2011, while the district investigated undisclosed allegations, according to the supreme court ruling.
In 2012, two media outlets sought public records in the case, including an administrative-leave letter and spreadsheets documenting pay the two received while on leave.
Predisik and Katke sued the school district to have their names redacted from the records. A trial court ruled that the documents were public but the teachers’ identities were exempt from disclosure. The appeals court affirmed.
In reversing, Justice Mary Yu wrote for the majority: “Public employees are paid with public tax dollars and, by definition, are servants of and accountable to the public. The people have a right to know who their public employees are and when those employees are not performing their duties. In sum, we hold there is no privacy right under the PRA in the mere fact that a public employer is investigating a public employee or in the employee’s use of administrative leave. Both are simply functions of the government.”
Yu said privacy rights are different in the investigation itself versus the employee’s conduct giving rise to the investigation.
“A public employer’s investigation is certainly not a private matter: it arises exclusively from the employee’s public employment,” Yu wrote.
Yu found that the leave letter and spreadsheet “do not disclose the factual allegations underlying that investigation.”
“From these three records, the public learns only matters related to Predisik’s and Katke’s status as public employees and nothing about their personal lives. For the reasons we explain above, this information does not trigger a privacy interest under the PRA.”
In dissent, Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote that employees have a right to privacy in connection with unsubstantiated claims of misconduct.
“The employees who are the subjects of unsubstantiated allegations and pending investigations have a right to privacy in their identities. This right is violated if the records at issue are disclosed in their entirety to the public,” Fairhurst wrote.
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