An appeals court in Florida upheld a lower court’s decision last week finding the city of High Springs – located just northwest of Gainesville – rightfully redacted portions of a pre-employment polygraph test, administered to a police officer candidate, before publicly releasing the results.
The court interpreted a provision in the Florida Public Records Act that states, “[e]xamination questions and answer sheets of examinations administered by a governmental agency for the purpose of licensure, certification, or employment are exempt” from public disclosure, although such records are open for review by the person who completed the exam.
In June 2010, High Springs resident Robyn Rush filed a complaint against the city, challenging the redaction of questions and answers contained in a results report from a polygraph test taken by Clinton Knowles – a prospective employee of the city's police department – before releasing the results to Rush. But in July 2011, the Alachua County Circuit Court maintained the city acted properly in removing the material from the reports, according to the appellate court's ruling.
“The city intended to abide by the public records law all along and believed that they were acting within the provisions of the law, and the court agreed with them,” said Linda Bond Edwards, the city's attorney.
According to the opinion, Rush claimed the examination exemption in the state's open records law did not apply to pre-employment polygraphs, which she argued "explore an applicant's mental state or individual character traits," but only to exams that "test an applicant's technical knowledge or skills." Rush argued this exemption was originally enacted to prevent cheating on pre-employment examinations – where the release of questions and answers would assist applicants – but that cheating on polygraphs was not a concern and demanded the city release the full contents of the reports. The court did not agree.
"Given the plain meaning of the language contained in the exemption, we agree with the trial court that the City properly redacted the questions and answers from this particular pre-employment polygraph examination," the court stated in the opinion.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement recommends polygraph screenings for police officers, but departments are not required to administer these types of tests prior to hiring, said James Holley, chief of police in High Springs. It costs too much to run a polygraph test on all prospective officers, he said.
Before applying to the police department in High Springs, Knowles was let go from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department in 2008, in part for an alcohol related infraction, according to court documents. Knowles sued the sheriff's department in Sarasota – in a case that eventually reached the U.S. Court of Appeals in Tampa (11th Cir.) – alleging employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In July, the trial court granted Rush partial summary judgment on her claims, ruling that the city "unreasonably delayed" the response to her public records request. The appeals court did not reconsider this argument.
“The analysis of the court in my opinion is defective and not in conformance with the law,” said Rush's attorney, Joseph Little. According to Little, Rush now has until Friday, March 9 to file a motion for reconsideration with the court, asking it to review and revise its decision.
Related Reporters Committee resources: · Open Government Guide – Florida – Personnel records