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State high court deems portions of sick-leave records public

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         IOWA         Freedom of Information         Oct 21, 1999    

State high court deems portions of sick-leave records public

  • Privacy interests of public employees only prevent the disclosure of personal information related to compensation, such as addresses, due to the public’s interest in government spending, the Iowa Supreme Court found

The names of public employees who are compensated for unused sick-leave time — and the amount of compensation individual employees receive — are public records, the state Supreme Court in Des Moines ruled in mid-October. However, more personal information, including employee addresses and dates of birth, are not public records.

The Supreme Court rejected a daily newspaper’s contention that the information being sought was not personal information covered by an open records exemption. Instead, the court engaged in a balancing test that looked to the public purpose behind the request, the scope of the privacy invasion, and whether the information was available elsewhere.

The newspaper was allowed to have the names of employees who had received sick-leave compensation along with the amount each had received, but the city had to keep private the more personal information of employee addresses, genders, and dates of birth.

Whatever minimal privacy interest public employees may have in their names is outweighed by the public’s interest in knowing what individual public employees are receiving from city coffers, the court ruled. But releasing the more personal information would do little — besides risk worker safety or cause personal embarrassment — to achieve the goals of monitoring civic performance, the court ruled.

The Gazette Company, which publishes a daily newspaper in Cedar Rapids, had sought records about the amount of sick-leave compensation that city workers had received in 1996. A local union chapter representing the affected municipal workers brought suit in state court in Cedar Rapids to prevent the city from disclosing the information.

In addition to information about the amount of sick-leave compensation city workers had received, the newspaper said it needed the corresponding names, addresses, genders, and dates of birth of the workers to confirm who had received what compensation. The union claimed such information was not public under the state’s open records law because it concerned personnel records, which are exempt from disclosure.

In ruling in favor of the union, the lower court had said the personnel exemption allowed the release of sick-leave compensation information only in an aggregate form. Information about individual employees was private, that court said.

On appeal to the state Supreme Court, the newspaper argued that basic employee information such as name, date of birth, and address is not personal information that should even be protected by the personnel record exemption. Even if it were personal information, the newspaper urged, the public’s interest in monitoring government spending outweighed any privacy interest in keeping that information secret.

(Clymer v. City of Cedar Rapids; Media Counsel: John M. Bickel, Cedar Rapids)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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