WTHR-TV v. Hamilton Se. Schs., 21S-MI-345

Citation21S-MI-345
Case DateJanuary 13, 2022
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

WTHR-TV, Appellant (Plaintiff below),
v.

Hamilton Southeastern Schools, Appellee (Defendant below),

and Rick Wimmer, Intervenor.

No. 21S-MI-345

Supreme Court of Indiana

January 13, 2022


Argued: September 16, 2021

Appeal from the Hamilton Circuit Court No. 29C01-1806-MI-5244 The Honorable Paul A. Felix, Judge

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 20A-MI-1701

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT

Michael A. Wilkins Broyles Kight & Ricafort, P.C. Indianapolis, Indiana

Katie Townsend Adam A. Marshall Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Washington, DC

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE

Liberty L. Roberts Church Church Hittle + Antrim Noblesville, Indiana

ATTORNEY FOR INTERVENOR

Eric M. Hylton Riley Bennett Egloff LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

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OPINION

MASSA, JUSTICE

WTHR-TV sought information about a Hamilton Southeastern Schools (HSE) employee under Indiana Code section 5-14-3-4(b)(8). That statute requires public agencies to disclose certain types of information in public employee personnel files, including the "factual basis" for some disciplinary actions. Following a contentious back-and-forth, HSE provided WTHR with a compilation of the requested information, but not the underlying documents in the personnel file.

WTHR sued, arguing it was entitled to the underlying documents and that HSE's factual basis for the employee's discipline was insufficient. The trial court sided with HSE on both issues, and an appellate panel affirmed. We conclude WTHR was not entitled to the underlying documents because an agency may compile the required information into a new document. We also conclude that a "factual basis" must be a fact-based account of what caused the discipline; it cannot be a bald conclusion, which is what HSE provided. Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

Facts and Procedural History

Rick Wimmer was a teacher and the head football coach at Fishers High School, which is part of HSE. In September 2016, Wimmer was placed on paid leave following an incident with a student during class. Fishers High announced the discipline, and WTHR reported on it. In December, HSE converted Wimmer's leave from paid to unpaid. WTHR made numerous attempts to obtain more information from HSE about Wimmer's discipline. Ultimately, it formally requested access to and copies of the portions of Wimmer's personnel file that contained disclosable information under Indiana Code section 5-14-3-4(b)(8).[1] This statute

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requires public agencies to disclose three types of information in public employee personnel files: basic employee identifying information, information about formal charges, and the "factual basis" for certain types of final discipline. Ind. Code § 5-14-3-4(b)(8) (2016).

HSE responded with a compilation of information in an email but did not provide copies of the underlying documents containing the information. As for Wimmer's discipline, HSE stated in relevant part that "Mr. Wimmer was suspended for five days without pay on December 14, 2016 due to not implementing instructions for classroom management strategies consistent with Board of School Trustees Policy G02.06." Appellant's App. Vol. II, p.65. That policy is titled "Staff Conduct" and contains broad requirements for staff, like requiring them to "demonstrate behaviors which contribute toward an appropriate school atmosphere." Id., p.42.

WTHR was unsatisfied with this response and sued HSE. It sought copies of and access to Wimmer's disclosable records, all disclosable data comprising the factual basis for Wimmer's discipline, and the factual basis for the discipline. The trial court ruled for HSE, finding that WTHR was not entitled to specific documents in Wimmer's personnel file and that HSE provided a sufficient factual basis.

WTHR appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. It found that because Indiana Code section 5-14-3-4(b)(8) identifies categories of information, HSE was only required to provide that information, not the underlying documents in Wimmer's file. WTHR-TV v. Hamilton Se. Sch. Dist., 167 N.E.3d 301, 316-17 (Ind.Ct.App. 2021), vacated. The panel then noted that "the plain meaning of 'factual basis' in this context calls for a fact-based account of what led to the discipline." Id. at 318. And the panel found HSE's factual basis was sufficient, because it "explained the type of disciplinary action that was taken, the date the discipline was imposed, the length of the discipline, and why the discipline was issued, which was for Wimmer's failure to implement classroom management strategies consistent with school policy." Id. at 320.

WTHR sought transfer, which we granted. WTHR-TV v. Hamilton Se. Schs., 171 N.E.3d 616 (Ind. 2021).

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Standard of Review

Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we review de novo. ESPN, Inc. v. Univ. of Notre Dame Police Dep't, 62 N.E.3d 1192, 1195 (Ind. 2016). We also review an agency's denial of access to a public record de novo. I.C. § 5-14-3-9(f)-(g).

Discussion and Decision

The Indiana Access to Public Records Act governs public records requests and "is intended to ensure Hoosiers have broad access to most government records." Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh Cnty. Health Dep't, 17 N.E.3d 922, 928 (Ind. 2014). Although it creates a right to "inspect and copy the public records of any public agency," I.C. § 5-14-3-3(a), that right is not absolute. The Act contains "a myriad of broad exceptions." Robinson v. Ind. Univ., 659 N.E.2d 153, 156 (Ind.Ct.App. 1995), trans. denied. Relevant here, the personnel file exception excepts from the general "inspect and copy" requirement the "[p]ersonnel files of public employees and files of applicants for public employment, except for" three categories of information. I.C. § 5-14-3-4(b)(8). These categories are exceptions to the exception. We now hold that the personnel file exception only requires public agencies to disclose those three categories of information, which can be done by compiling them into a new document. And we hold that the required "factual basis" for discipline must contain facts about the employee's acts that caused the discipline.

I. Indiana Code section 5-14-3-4(b)(8) requires public agencies to provide certain types of information, but it does not require them to provide the underlying documents.

When we interpret a statute, we give its undefined "words their plain meaning and consider the structure of the statute as a whole." ESPN, Inc., 62 N.E.3d at 1195. When the General Assembly has defined a statutory

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term, we are bound by its definition. Smith v. State, 867 N.E.2d 1286, 1288- 89 (Ind. 2007). And we consider both what the statute does-and does not-say, ESPN, Inc., 62 N.E.3d at 1195, because we cannot "add words or restrictions," West v. Off. of Ind. Sec'y of State, 54 N.E.3d 349, 353 (Ind. 2016).

The Act broadly declares "that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees." I.C. § 5-14-3-1. To that end, it creates the right to "inspect and copy the public records of any public agency . . . except as provided in section 4." I.C. § 5-14-3-3(a). School corporations, like HSE, are public agencies subject to the Act. I.C. § 5-14-3-2(q)(2)(A). And the Act broadly defines "public record" to include any writing or document created by a public agency. I.C. § 5-14-3-2(r).

Indiana Code section 5-14-3-4 provides mandatory and discretionary exceptions to the general "inspect and copy" requirement. The personnel file exception is discretionary: An agency may refuse to disclose public employee personnel files. I.C. § 5-14-3-4(b)(8). However, that exception contains three exceptions of its own. The first is basic identifying information: "the name, compensation, job title, business address, business telephone number, job description, education and training background, previous work experience, or dates of first and last employment of present or former officers or employees of the agency." I.C. § 5-14-3-4(b)(8)(A). The second is "information relating to the status of any formal charges against the employee." I.C. § 5-14-3-4(b)(8)(B)....

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