International Federation v. Superior Court

Decision Date27 August 2007
Docket NumberNo. S134253.,S134253.
Citation165 P.3d 488,64 Cal.Rptr.3d 693,42 Cal.4th 319
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesINTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF PROFESSIONAL AND TECHNICAL ENGINEERS, LOCAL 21, AFL-CIO et al., Petitioners, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Alameda County, Respondent; Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc., et al., Real Parties in Interest.

Trevor A. Grimm, Los Angeles, Jonathan M. Coupal and Timothy A. Bittle, Sacramento, for Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc.

Law Office of Judy Alexander and Judy Alexander for ANG Newspapers, Bakersfield Californian, California Newspaper Publishers Association, The Copley Press, Inc., Embarcadero Publishing Company, Gannett, Hearst Corporation, Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, McClatchy Company, Metro Newspapers, New York Times, Orange County Register, The Press Enterprise Company and San Jose Mercury News as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc.

Alan L. Schlosser, Mark Schlosberg, San Francisco; Peter Eliasberg, Los Angeles,; Law Offices of Amitai Schwartz, Amitai Schwartz, Lisa Sitkin, Emeryville; and Jordan C. Budd, San Diego, for ACLU of Northern California, ACLU Foundation of Southern California and ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties as Amici Curiae on behalf of Real Party in Interest Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc.


This case presents the question whether the names and salaries of public employees earning $100,000 or more per year, including peace officers, are exempt from public disclosure under the California Public Records Act (Gov.Code, § 6250 et seq.).1 The Court of Appeal concluded they are not, because "well-established norms of California public policy and American public employment exclude public employee names and salaries from the zone of financial privacy protection." For the reasons explained below, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.


Reporters employed by Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc. (the Newspapers) requested under the California Public Records Act (the Act) that the City of Oakland (the City) provide them with the names, job titles, and gross salaries of all city employees who earned $100,000 or more in fiscal year 2003-2004, including those individuals whose base salary equaled or exceeded that amount and those who earned a lower base salary but were paid $100,000 or more because of overtime work. The City agreed to disclose salary and overtime information for each job classification, but refused to provide salary information linked to individual employees, claiming that individually identified salary information is exempt from disclosure. The Newspapers sought a writ of mandate in the superior court to compel the City to disclose the requested salary records.

The City's refusal was a departure from its past practice. At least during the years 1996 through 2003, the City's personnel director disclosed the names, job titles, and salaries of all city employees, and this information was published in a local newspaper. The City changed its policy in May 2004, citing as factors supporting this decision (1) two appellate court decisions that recognized a privacy right in public employee salary information (Teamsters Local 856 v. Priceless, LLC (2003) 112 Cal.App.4th 1500, 5 Cal.Rptr.3d 847 (Priceless) and City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 883, 3 Cal.Rptr.3d 915 (City of Los Angeles)); (2) increased concerns regarding financial privacy; and (3) strong opposition to its prior policy from two unions that represented city employees. In addition, because the City has a merit-based compensation system, it concluded that disclosing the salaries of public employees by name each year would permit members of the public to construct a performance evaluation of each employee by calculating the percentage increase in his or her salary from year to year, which would invade the employees' privacy.

The superior court granted leave to intervene to two employee unions, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21 (Local 21) and the Oakland Police Officers Association (the Police Officers Association). The superior court granted the Newspapers' petition and ordered the City to disclose the requested salary information. The court concluded that the City and the intervening unions had failed to establish that city employees who earn $100,000 or more have any protected privacy interest in information related to their salary, and found that such salary information consistently had been disclosed in the past, both by the City and by federal, state, and other local governments. Although the City and some other cities recently had refused to disclose individually identified salary information, the court concluded that these refusals appeared to reflect "uncertainty about the proper interpretation of the [Act] in light of recent court decisions."

The superior court also concluded that, even assuming a privacy interest existed, that interest is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure. The court found "extremely speculative" the fears expressed by two declarants that identity fraud and unwanted solicitations would ensue in the event information disclosing their salaries were to be released. Furthermore, the superior court found, the evidence presented by the Newspapers supports their contention that disclosure of the names of employees in connection with their individual salaries is "in many cases necessary to disclose inefficiency, favoritism, nepotism, and fraud with respect to the government's use of public funds for employee salaries." The court also rejected the Police Officers Association's contention that a different result is required under Penal Code sections 832.7 and 832.8 with regard to its members because those statutes render peace officer personnel records confidential, the court concluding that salary information is not included within the definition of "personnel records" under the latter statute.

The City chose not to appeal from the judgment rendered by the superior court. Local 21 and the Police Officers Association (collectively, the Unions) filed a petition for writ of mandate in the Court of Appeal. After issuing an order to show cause, that court denied the Unions' petitions. The Unions then successfully sought review in this court.


Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. "Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process." (C.B.S., Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646, 651, 230 Cal.Rptr. 362, 725 P.2d 470, fn. omitted (Block).) In adopting the Act, the Legislature declared that "access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state." (§ 6250.) As the result of an initiative adopted by the voters in 2004, this principle is now enshrined in the state Constitution: "The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and therefore, ... the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny." (Cal. Const, art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(1).)

The Legislature has been "mindful of the right of individuals to privacy." (§ 6250.) Set forth in the Act are numerous exceptions to the requirement of public disclosure, many of which are designed to protect individual privacy. (See § 6254.)2 In addition, a catchall exception applies if "on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." (§ 6255, subd. (a).) Unless one of the exceptions stated in the Act applies, the public is entitled to access to "any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency." (§ 6252, subd. (e); § 6253, subd. (a).)

The parties agree that the records at issue meet the...

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