School district secrecy agreement is enforceable
COLORADO–The state Supreme Court in mid-May reversed the dismissal of a defamation and breach of contract suit filed by a superintendent against his former school district, holding that the confidentiality provisions of their settlement agreement were enforceable.
Fred Pierce, former St. Vrain Valley School District superintendent, sued the school district in 1994 for defamation and breach of contract after members of the school board apparently violated a confidentiality agreement pertaining to the details of Pierce’s resignation.
Pierce resigned his position as superintendent in 1994 after being accused of sexual harassment by several female school district employees. Under terms of a written settlement agreement he signed in August 1994, he would assert that he was resigning for “personal reasons,” the district would not make any public statements inconsistent with or to contradict that announcement, and neither the district nor Pierce would make any disparaging public comments or remarks about the other. The contract also stated that the details surrounding Pierce’s resignation would remain confidential.
In 1995 the Superior Court in Boulder held that the confidentiality provision of the agreement violated public policy. The appeals court agreed, reasoning that both the Colorado constitution and the open records statutes require that “the terms and facts surrounding a settlement agreement between a government entity and a public official generally may not be kept secret from the public.”
But the state Supreme Court cited an exception in the open records statute for personnel files, which explicitely does not shield “any amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment.” The court held that the amount paid to Pierce pursuant to the agreement must be disclosed, but other parts of the agreement might have been excepted from inspection if they were considered part of a personnel file.
The court also stated that the agreement might have been protected from inspection if its custodian determined that disclosure would result in “substantial injury to the public interest.” The court found that the members of the board clearly concluded at the time they entered into the agreement that the public interests in the efficient administration of the school system outweighed considerations regarding the accessibility of this information to the public.
Several weeks after Pierce announced his resignation, The Denver Post ran a story under the headline “Schools Chief is Paid to Leave” which revealed the monetary amounts paid to Pierce under the settlement and the allegations of sexual harassment. The article attributed comments about the school district’s liability for Pierce’s action to one current and one former school board member.
The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. (Pierce v. St. Vrain Valley School District; Defendant’s Counsel: Patrick Mooney, Denver)