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School district ordered to pay $450,000 for privacy violations

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    NMU         MINNESOTA         Freedom of Information         Jul 5, 2000    

School district ordered to pay $450,000 for privacy violations

  • A school district concerned about a teacher’s performance was ordered in June to pay record damages for violating her privacy by talking to parents and the media.

In a record-setting jury award in a data privacy case, a teacher was awarded $450,000 from her school district on June 22 over disclosure of information about complaints against her.

Parents had complained to the school district about the allegedly poor teaching methods and classroom management skills of teacher Judy Navarre. The South Washington County School District released information about the complaints.

Navarre filed suit in 1997 in District Court in Stillwater, accusing the school district of violating the Data Practices Act by disclosing private personnel data by announcing and explaining the investigation. Because Navarre had never been formally disciplined, she argued, the school district’s investigation should have remained secret.

Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said that the Data Practices Act seems to provide no margin of error when the information disclosed is about public officials, such as public school teachers.

“It wasn’t an issue,” Anfinson said. “That’s the perversity.”

The suit originally included claims against the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which printed information about the district’s concerns. The judge handling the case dismissed that claim last July.

The teacher was awarded $200,000 for reputational damage, $250,000 for infliction of emotional distress and $70,000 for lost wages, for a total award of $520,000. Reputational, emotional and wage damages are specifically allowed by the Data Practices Act.

“In response, officials will undoubtedly become even more cautious about releasing information regarding public employees,” Anfinson wrote in a recent bulletin, and “it is already way too difficult to obtain access in many cases.”

Mary Elrod, school district spokeswoman, said the district has not decided yet whether to appeal.

(Navarre v. South Washington County School District, Attorney: Joseph Flynn, Mendota Heights) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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