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Records of fire official ruled 'private'

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Records of fire official ruled ‘private’

  • A Louisiana appeals court has allowed a fire district to withhold disciplinary and other records of an assistant fire chief, finding a state constitutional privacy protection grants freedom from “unnecessary public scrutiny.”

Jan. 6, 2005 — A Louisiana firefighter trying to prove workplace abuse by an assistant fire chief cannot obtain the chief’s disciplinary or other personnel records because the assistant chief’s privacy is protected by the state’s constitution, a state appeals court in Gretna, La., ruled Dec. 28, affirming a trial court decision.

The East Bank Consolidated Special Service Fire Protection District in Jefferson, La., refused to give firefighter Mikel Crossen any personnel records — including disciplinary records — of Assistant Chief Edward Goldman, and obtained a protective order against their release after Crossen sought the records to help defend himself in a disciplinary action. Crossen believes the Goldman records would include disciplinary actions, reprimands and apologies that show a pattern of abusive behavior toward firefighters.

The firefighters union intervened for Goldman telling the court that personnel records should remain secret. The sheriff of Jefferson Parish, the city of Kenner police chief and the city of Gretna filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to find that public employees have a constitutional right of privacy in their personnel records and that right trumps the state’s Public Records Doctrine.

The friend-of-the-court briefs argued that the right of privacy against release of personnel records is guaranteed not only by the Louisiana Constitution but by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the appeals panel did not address the federal constitutional claim.

The Louisiana Constitution provides that person, property, communications, houses, papers and effects will be secure “against unreasonable searches and seizures, or invasions of privacy.” In writing for the court, Judge Clarence McManus noted an earlier case describing the right to privacy as “the right to be let alone and to be free from unnecessary public scrutiny.”

Finding that an employee would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the records included in Goldman’s file, McManus also cited a case protecting personal evaluation reports because disclosure might cause “humiliation and embarrassment.”

(East Bank Consolidated Special Service Fire Protection District v. Crossen; Requestor’s attorney: Gilbert Buras, New Orleans) RD

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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