Public employee's personnel record is also public, court holds.
While freedom-of-information laws differ among states--for example, New Hampshire has specific exceptions for personnel matters--the Connecticut court clarified what can and can't happen under its state laws.
Christa Pane worked as a public health inspector for the city of Danbury. In October 1995, a reporter for the Danbury, News-Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to review Pane's personnel file. The city's personnel director, Emanuel Merullo, reviewed the file and gave it to the reporter without notifying Pane of either the request or the file's release. The newspaper published two articles containing information from the file that Pane alleged were "critical" of her.
Pane said releasing the records without her knowledge violated the public policy set forth in state statutes requiring that employees be notified in writing of requests to review their records. She sued the city and Merullo for invasion of privacy and emotional distress.
The trial court granted the city summary judgment, saying:
* Freedom-of information laws don't provide for civil damages suits.
* The state constitution does not provide a cause of action for invasion of privacy, and federal law does no t apply without widespread discriminatory "custom and usage" by the local government.
* Merullo's actions in honoring the FOIA request were neither "extreme nor outrageous."
The supreme court found that Pane had insufficient legal grounds to support her amended complaint of public-policy violations.
"We repeatedly have stated that 'the overarching legislative policy of [the FOIA] is one that favors the open conduct of government and free public access to government records,'" wrote Chief Justice William Sullivan.
"The plaintiff has not cited any statute allowing her to sue the city for invasion of privacy," Sullivan wrote. The court reiterated its "invasion of privacy" definition from an earlier decision, Perkins v. Freedom of Information Commission: A tort action for invasion of personal privacy is triggered by public disclosure of information that "(a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (b) is not of legitimate concern to the public." (635 A.2d 783 (1993).)
Pane had argued that the freedom-of-information laws contained an implied right of action because their purpose is to protect the privacy of government employees--who, without a statutory right of action, could be left with no remedy for privacy violations.
But the FOIA doesn't contain any explicit provisions to that effect, and the plaintiff "pointed to no statutory provision expressly abrogating governmental immunity from claims arising under the FOIA," Sullivan wrote. "The fact that this leaves municipal employees who have otherwise meritorious claims against their employers without any remedy at law is simply an unavoidable consequence of the doctrine."
The court also found that Pane had no evidentiary foundation or legal authority to claim that Merullo had final policy-making authority over the release of records and could thus be held liable under 42 U.S.C. [section]1983.
"I wouldn't jump for joy over this decision," said Ed Kramer, an employment lawyer in Cleveland. The pertinent laws differ among states, he said. "Public employees in Ohio have no privacy rights. Under the Ohio Revised Code, they can have their personnel records examined by anyone who submits a public-records request."
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|Date:||May 1, 2004|
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