In a landmark ruling that will increase government transparency in Indiana, the state’s Supreme Court held last week that agencies must provide specific facts explaining why a public employee is suspended, fired or otherwise disciplined.
The unanimous Supreme Court decision means that school districts, police departments and other public agencies across the state can no longer get away with making vague assertions when responding to records requests about an employee whose misconduct resulted in punishment. Instead, Indiana’s highest court concluded, government officials “must provide some facts about the employee’s actions.”
The ruling is the culmination of a three-and-a-half-year legal battle Reporters Committee attorneys successfully waged on behalf of Indiana’s WTHR-TV, which sued a local school district for information about the suspension of a high school teacher and football coach.
“This isn’t just a win for WTHR,” Reporters Committee Senior Staff Attorney Adam Marshall told WTHR after the ruling. “This is a win for everyone who lives in the state of Indiana.”
The origins of the legal dispute date back to 2017. That’s when Bob Segall, an investigative reporter at WTHR, began requesting records under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act that would explain why the Hamilton Southeastern School District suspended Rick Wimmer, then-head football coach at Fishers High School. Segall sought the records as part of the station’s investigation into incidents of Indiana public school teachers and staff being suspended, placed on administrative leave, moved or resigning with little or no information provided to explain the changes publicly.
While school officials provided some information in response to Segall’s requests, they repeatedly refused to disclose any details establishing the basis for the suspension beyond vague conclusory statements, such as Wimmer was punished for “not implementing instructions for classroom management strategies” and for failing to follow school board policy.
WTHR, represented by Reporters Committee attorneys and Mike Wilkins of Broyles Kight & Ricafort, P.C, ultimately sued the school district in 2018. The lawsuit argued that the district violated the state’s public records law by failing to provide the “factual basis” for Wimmer’s suspension, a mandate included in the state’s public records law.
A trial court ruled in favor of the district, holding that school officials provided enough information to satisfy the “factual basis” requirement. An appeals court later affirmed the trial court’s ruling before WTHR asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the case.
All five justices of the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts’ finding that the school district sufficiently explained the reason for the football coach’s suspension. In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Mark Massa wrote that while agencies aren’t required to explain the reason for an employee’s punishment in “intricate detail,” it is still required to “provide some facts about the employee’s actions.”
But in this case, the Supreme Court concluded, “No reasonable person could read HSE’s statement and policy and understand why HSE disciplined Wimmer. HSE’s ‘factual basis’ was merely a bald conclusion that Wimmer violated a broad policy. It did not contain facts about Wimmer’s actions that would allow a reasonable person to understand why he was suspended.”
The case now returns to the trial court for further proceedings.
Photo credit: Screenshot of WTHR news report