Calif. court rules pension info must be disclosed

Clara Hogan | Freedom of Information | Feature | June 29, 2011

The names and pension amounts of retired county employees are public records that are useful in holding the government accountable, a California appeals court ruled Tuesday in San Diego County Employees Retirement Association v. California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.

The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s decision to allow court-compelled disclosure, under the California Public Records Act, of the names of retirees who received more than a certain amount in pension benefits during any month in 2010.

The case arose when the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a citizens group that educates people about public employee retirement benefit issues, requested that the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association disclose the names of those who received more than $8,333 in pension benefits each month, each person’s gross monthly benefit, the last employing agency and the worksheet of how the benefit was calculated.

The appeals court agreed with the lower court that the public’s interest in the records outweighs the privacy concerns of the retirees. While the taxpayer retirement group argued disclosure could result in significant harm to retirees, the court noted California has a history of releasing this type of information and the association "presented no evidence of any actual adverse consequences from previous disclosures."

“The disclosure of pension information provides information about the government’s management of public [funds], in which the public has a legitimate interest. Pension benefits are not exclusively related to personal financial decisions of former employees,” the ruling said.

The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility filed suit in superior court seeking an order compelling disclosure under the state public records act after the retirement association refused to hand over the information.

The retirement association argued the records were exempt from the law under a section that says: “Sworn statements and individual records of members shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed.”

In addition, it claimed the balancing test tipped in its favor, saying retiree’s privacy interests are greater than the public interest. The association said the majority of top paid retirees strongly objected to their names being disclosed and had experts testify that disclosure could expose the former public workers to fraudulent activity.

The association also accused the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility of wanting the names so it could post them to its “$100,000 Club” list on its website.

The foundation said it did not intend to post the names to the list. The court granted a tentative ruling allowing the disclosure of the retirees’ first names and only the first letter of their last names.

However, on Nov. 2, 2010, the court granted an official ruling allowing the disclosure of the documents -- including retirees’ full names -- after finding the public interest outweighed potential privacy concerns. It noted a provision stating the foundation could not publish surnames on any Web page.

The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association moved for reconsideration, but the court reaffirmed its original order. The association then appealed to the San Diego appeals court.

The appeals court ruled the government employees pension benefits are more closely tied to salaries, which are public, than private assets and that the citizens group had a legitimate right to inspect the activities of the government group.

“Disclosure by [the association] is particularly important because it pays out pension benefits itself rather than submitting the roll to a controller to fulfill that function. If the public cannot obtain the records [. . .], there is secrecy rather than transparency in government,” the ruling said.

It is unclear when the information will go public. The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association has 30 days from the ruling to decide whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, said she is happy with the 3-0 decision and was optimistic the court would rule as it did despite the large effort from the retirement assocation to fight disclosure.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association spent over $100,000 on legal costs associated with the lawsuit.

Fritz said California's pension laws are "extremely" complicated, and each of the state's 85 pension systems sets its own policies in calculating pensions. Having the information, including how pension benefits are calculated, will help the group identify policies that may need to be reviewed or changed by elected officials, especially in light of increasing pension costs, Fritz added.

“We need access to these records in order to identify loopholes and manipulations and opportunities for people to ring in their pension costs,” she said.

Karl Olson, a San Fransico-area attorney, organized the friend-of-the-court brief in favor of the citizens group. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 12 other media and First Amendment advocacy groups signed onto the brief.

Olson noted this is the second state appeals court decision of its kind in recent weeks. A Sacramento appeals court ruled on May 11 that pension benefits should be open to public inspection after the First Amendment Coalition and Sacramento Bee filed suit. He said it is "not just a trend but a pretty clear body of law."

Olson said spiking pension obligations to retirees in the state makes the issue even more pressing.

"There’s just no reason that pension benefits should be treated differently than salaries," he said. "It's completely vital light be shed on the pension benefits received by county employees."