Federation of Personnel v. University

Decision Date16 July 2008
Docket NumberCalendar No. 4.,Docket No. 133819.
Citation753 N.W.2d 28,481 Mich. 657
PartiesMICHIGAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS and SCHOOL RELATED PERSONNEL, AFT, AFL-CIO, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Bernardi, Ronayne & Glusac, A Professional Corporation (by Katherine W. Mackenzie), Plymouth, for amici curiae the Michigan Press Association.

Michael A. Cox, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, and Thomas Quasarano, Assistant Attorney General, for amici curiae the Attorney General.

YOUNG, J.

In this case, we must decide if the home addresses and telephone numbers of University of Michigan employees sought through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request are exempt from disclosure under FOIA's privacy exemption.1 We hold that employees' home addresses and telephone numbers meet both prongs of FOIA's privacy exemption because that information is "of a personal nature" and its disclosure would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy." In reaching this conclusion, we reexamine the definition of "information of a personal nature" set forth by this Court in Bradley v. Saranac Community Schools Bd. of Ed.,2 and conclude that it unnecessarily limited the intended scope of that phrase. We cure this deficiency and revise that definition to encompass information of an embarrassing, intimate, private, or confidential nature. We conclude that employees' home addresses and telephone numbers are information of an embarrassing, intimate, private, or confidential nature. Disclosure of this information would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy" in this case primarily because the core purposes of FOIA would not be advanced by its disclosure to plaintiff. With both prongs of the privacy exemption satisfied, we hold that the University of Michigan employees' home addresses and telephone numbers are exempt from disclosure.

Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed and the circuit court's grant of summary disposition in favor of defendants is reinstated.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Michigan Federation of Teachers submitted a FOIA request to defendant University of Michigan's chief FOIA officer seeking numerous items of information that defendant possessed regarding every University of Michigan employee. The information sought included first and last names, job title, compensation rate, and work address and telephone number. Two additional items of information sought by plaintiff, which are the subject of this appeal, are the employees' home addresses and telephone numbers.

Defendant timely responded to the FOIA request and provided nearly all the information plaintiff sought. With respect to the home addresses and telephone numbers, defendant released the information of 20,812 employees who had given defendant their permission to publish their home addresses and telephone numbers in the University of Michigan's faculty and staff directory. Defendant did not turn over the home addresses and telephone numbers of the remaining 16,406 employees who had withheld permission to publish that information in the directory. Thus, defendant denied the FOIA request in part, relying on the privacy exemption and stating that the information's release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of these employees' privacy.

Plaintiff filed suit in the Washtenaw Circuit Court seeking to compel the release of the remaining home addresses and telephone numbers. The parties filed cross-motions for summary disposition. Defendant attached to its motion six affidavits from employees who did not want their home addresses and telephone numbers released to the public. Some of the affiants attested that the release of this information would threaten their own or their family's safety.

The circuit court granted defendant's motion for summary disposition. It ruled that the employees' home addresses and telephone numbers were information of a personal nature and that "one would be hard pressed to argue that disclosure `contributes significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government.'"

The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court in an unpublished opinion per curiam.3 Relying on Bradley, the panel held that home addresses and telephone numbers were not "information of a personal nature" because they did not reveal intimate or embarrassing details of an individual's private life, even when considered against the "customs, mores, or ordinary views of the community." It also held that no caselaw supported the proposition that public employees' home addresses and telephone numbers were items of personal information,4 and that in those reported cases where home addresses were held to be exempt from disclosure under the privacy exemption the plaintiffs had sought disclosure of addresses to access other information that was personal.5

The panel, however, recognized that certain employees might have legitimate reasons to avoid disclosure of their personal information. Relying on Tobin, it ruled that on remand defendant "may determine whether any of its employees not included in the directory have demonstrated `truly exceptional circumstances' to prevent disclosure of names, addresses, and telephone numbers."

Judge Wilder concurred with the majority's decision under Bradley, but raised two points. First, he suggested that Bradley's reading of the statutory language was inconsistent with its plain meaning and was worthy of reexamination. Second, he questioned whether the advent of the national do-not-call registry6 and the rising nationwide problem of identity theft had significantly altered the "customs, mores, or ordinary views of the community" concerning the disclosure of personal identifying information since the Bradley Court decided the issue in 1997.

Defendant filed an application seeking leave to appeal, which this Court granted.7

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court reviews de novo the trial court's decision to grant a motion for summary disposition.8 This Court reviews de novo as a question of law issues of statutory interpretation.9 And as we stated in an earlier FOIA case,

[b]ecause our judicial role precludes imposing different policy choices than those selected by the Legislature, our obligation is, by examining the statutory language, to discern the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words expressed in the statute. If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the plain meaning of the statute reflects the legislative intent and judicial construction is not permitted. We must give the words of a statute their plain and ordinary meaning.[10]

ANALYSIS
1. Background to FOIA and the Privacy Exemption

Consistent with the legislatively stated public policy supporting the act,11 the Michigan FOIA requires disclosure of the "public record[s]"12 of a "public body"13 to persons who request to inspect, copy, or receive copies of those requested public records.14 However, § 13 of FOIA15 sets forth a series of exemptions granting the public body the discretion to withhold a public record from disclosure if it falls within one of the exemptions.16 In the event a FOIA request is denied and the requesting party commences a circuit court action to compel disclosure of a public record, the public body bears the burden of sustaining its decision to withhold the requested record from disclosure.17

The FOIA exemption at issue in this case is the privacy exemption, MCL 15.243(1)(a), which states:

(1) A public body may exempt from disclosure as a public record under this act any of the following:

(a) Information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy.

This Court has attempted to construe this provision on many occasions since the enactment of the Michigan FOIA in 1976 and struggled for nearly as many years to reach a consensus regarding its proper interpretation. Kestenbaum v. Michigan State Univ.,18 marked the first occasion that this Court interpreted the privacy exemption. The plaintiff, for purposes of political mailings, requested a computer tape containing the names and addresses of the university's students. He sued when Michigan State denied the request. An equally divided Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision that the tape was exempt.19

Chief Justice Fitzgerald's opinion held that the release of the computer tape would violate the privacy exemption. Focusing on the statutory requirement that "the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy," Chief Justice Fitzgerald opined that

there has remained throughout this country's legal history one recognized situs of individual control the dwelling place. Without exception, this bastion of privacy has been afforded greater protection against outside assaults than has any other location.[20]

He reasoned that disclosure of the magnetic tape would constitute an invasion of privacy because

any intrusion into the home, no matter...

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