Bradley v. Saranac Community Schools Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date22 July 1997
Docket Number12,106070,Nos. 11,Docket Nos. 106020,s. 11
Citation565 N.W.2d 650,455 Mich. 285
Parties, 119 Ed. Law Rep. 677, 13 IER Cases 123 Christine E. BRADLEY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE SARANAC COMMUNITY SCHOOLS and The Saranac Community School District, Defendants-Appellees. LANSING ASSOCIATION OF SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. LANSING SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, Lansing School District Superintendent, and Lansing School District Personnel Director/Associate Superintendent, Defendants-Appellees. Calendar
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

White, Przybylowicz, Schneider & Baird, P.C. by Thomas A. Baird and Kathleen Corkin Boyle, Okemos, for plaintiff-appellant Bradley.

Hankins & Flanigan, P.C. by Jayne M. Flanigan and Timothy G. Holland Okemos, for plaintiff-appellant Lansing Association of School Administrators.

Thrun, Maatsch & Nordberg, P.C. by Kevin S. Harty, Roy H. Henley, James T. Maatsch, and Philip A. Erickson, Lansing, for defendants-appellees.

Hackett, Maxwell & Phillips by Dawn L. Phillips-Hertz and Lisa Rycus Mikalonis, Troy, amicus curiae, for Michigan Press Association.

Michael R. Shpiece, Bloomfield Hills, amicus curiae, for Michigan Freedom of Information Committee.

Peggy J. Rostorfer, Lansing, amicus curiae, for Parent Support Network.

BRICKLEY, Justice.

This consolidated case presents the issue whether the personnel records of public school teachers and administrators are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. M.C.L. § 15.231; M.S.A. § 4.1801(1). We hold that the requested records must be disclosed because they are public records and are not within any exemption under the FOIA. The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed in part and reversed in part.

I

In 1993, the father of one of Ms. Bradley's students made an FOIA request to the Saranac Community School District, seeking copies of Ms. Bradley's personnel file. Ms. Bradley objected to the release of her performance evaluations, disciplinary records, and complaints filed against her. The school district informed Ms. Bradley that it planned to release all the requested information, subject to the redaction of certain passages. The school district indicated that it was releasing the documents because it believed that it was compelled to do so.

Ms. Bradley sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction in the Ionia Circuit Court, contending that the requested material was exempt from disclosure under subsections 13(1)(a) and (n) of the FOIA. The circuit court entered a temporary restraining order. Following an in-camera inspection, during which it compared the original documents with a set of redacted documents, the circuit court ruled that the documents should be released in the edited form.

Separately, in the same year, the Parents Support Network submitted an FOIA request to the Lansing School District Board of Education, seeking copies of the written performance evaluations for nine principals employed by the school district. Representing the administrators, the Lansing Association of School Administrators (LASA) filed an action for a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction in the Ingham Circuit Court to bar the school board from disclosing the requested material. LASA alleged that the documents were exempt from disclosure under subsections 13(1)(a) and (n) of the Freedom of Information Act, and because of certain administrative protections. The circuit court ruled in favor of the school district.

The plaintiffs in both cases appealed, and the Court of Appeals consolidated the cases. In a per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decisions of the circuit courts. 1 Relying on Tobin v. Civil Service Comm, 2 the Court of Appeals concluded that the appellants were raising a "reverse FOIA" claim, i.e., seeking to prevent disclosure of public records under the FOIA. Reasoning that the FOIA, as a pro-disclosure statute, could not provide the plaintiffs with their desired relief, the Court of Appeals evaluated the plaintiffs' claims " 'as if the FOIA did not exist'...." 3 Bypassing the FOIA, the Court of Appeals examined the common law and the constitutional right to privacy for a reason to prevent disclosure, and, finding none, ordered that the documents be disclosed, subject to "appropriate redactions." 4

II

A. THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT

The issue presented by this consolidated case is whether the Michigan FOIA compels disclosure of the personnel records of public school teachers and administrators.

The FOIA "protects a citizen's right to examine and to participate in the political process." 5 By requiring the public disclosure of information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees, the act enhances the public's understanding of the operations or activities of the government. 6

1. REVERSE FOIA

While we agree with the conclusion 7 of the Court of Appeals, we arrive at that destination by a different route. The Court of Appeals did not evaluate this case under the FOIA because it concluded that this action was a "reverse FOIA" action. 8 While that description may be apt, it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the FOIA is irrelevant. As the plaintiffs' cases demonstrate, an action challenging an FOIA request may turn on an interpretation of whether the FOIA requires disclosure, notwithstanding that the FOIA does not prevent disclosure. 9

For example, in Bradley, the plaintiff sought a declaratory judgment that her personnel records were exempt from disclosure under the FOIA because the school district had informed her that it was releasing the information under the belief that it was compelled to do so. If the plaintiff had prevailed in showing that her personnel file was exempt, she may have been able to persuade the school district not to release the information.

Similarly, LASA's complaint asserted that the requested documents were exempt from disclosure under the FOIA and that certain administrative review procedures prevented the circulation of evaluation documents. If LASA had prevailed in its argument that its records were exempt, it could have enforced the confidentiality provision of the collective bargaining agreement to prevent disclosure of the evaluatory documents.

Because a favorable ruling on the applicability of the FOIA exemptions to their personnel records could have permitted the plaintiffs their requested relief under the FOIA, 10 the Court of Appeals erred in not analyzing this case under the FOIA.

2. APPLICATION OF THE FOIA TO THE PLAINTIFFS' PERSONNEL RECORDS

The Michigan FOIA provides for the disclosure of "public records" in the possession of a "public body." 11 Plaintiffs do not dispute that their school districts are "public bod[ies]," 12 or that the contents of their personnel records are "[p]ublic records." 13

The FOIA requires the full disclosure of public records, unless those records are exempted under § 13. 14 The exemptions in § 13 are narrowly construed, and the burden of proof rests on the party asserting the exemption. 15 If a request for information held by a public body falls within an exemption, the decision becomes discretionary. 16

3. EXEMPTIONS UNDER THE FOIA

The appellants contend that their personnel records are exempt from the mandatory disclosure requirements of the FOIA because their records fall within two exemptions---subsections 13(1)(a) and (n). Additionally, appellants LASA submit that subsection 13(1)(m) exempts their records. Because this issue raises a question of law, we review the Court of Appeals ruling de novo. 17

A. SUBSECTION 13(1)(a).

The FOIA's privacy exemption, subsection 13(1)(a), provides:

A public body may exempt from disclosure as a public record under this act:

(a) Information of a personal nature where the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy. [M.C.L. § 15.243, subd. 13(1)(a); M.S.A. § 4.1801(13)(1)(a).]

The privacy exemption consists of two elements, both of which must be present for the exemption to apply. First, the information must be of a "personal nature." Second, the disclosure of such information must be a "clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy." 18

In the past, we have used two slightly different formulations to describe "personal nature." The first defines "personal" as "[o]f or pertaining to a particular person; private; one's own.... Concerning a particular individual and his intimate affairs, interests, or activities; intimate...." 19 We have also defined this threshold inquiry in terms of whether the requested information was "personal, intimate, or embarrassing." 20 Combining the salient elements of each description into a more succinct test, we conclude that information is of a personal nature if it reveals intimate or embarrassing details of an individual's private life. We evaluate this standard in terms of "the 'customs, mores, or ordinary views of the community'...." 21

In these cases, the requested records were provided, under seal, to this Court for our evaluation. With regard to Ms. Bradley, her file contained documents pertaining to corrective or disciplinary actions, complaints filed, and performance evaluations. As for the administrators, their requested records contained administrative performance reviews.

Significantly, none of the documents contain information of an embarrassing, intimate, private, or confidential nature, such as medical records or information relating to the plaintiffs' private lives. Moreover, the appellants have not alleged specific private matters that would be revealed by the disclosure of their personnel records. Instead, the requested information consists solely of performance appraisals, disciplinary actions, and complaints relating to the plaintiffs' accomplishments in their public jobs. Because the requested information...

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