California High Court Decision a Win for Public Access to Government Employees’ Salaries

California’s highest court ruled Aug. 27, 2007 that public employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their annual salaries, limiting two lower court decisions that had raised questions about whether salary information was public.

In International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers v. Superior Court, 165 P.3d 488 (Cal. 2007), the court ordered the City of Oakland to release the name and salary of every city employee who made more than $100,000 in the 2003-2004 fiscal year.

The suit began in 2004 after Oakland reversed a long-standing policy and refused to release the information to the Contra Costa Times. The newspaper filed suit against the city in California Superior Court, and unions representing police officers, fire fighters, and other public employees joined the city as interveners.

The court’s opinion began by recognizing the presumption of access to government documents entrenched in the California Constitution, Cal. Const. Art. 1, section 3(b)(1), but also the exceptions to disclosure enacted by the legislature to safeguard individual privacy, Cal. Gov. Code section 6254. Under California law, unless the party seeking to withhold “public records” can prove an exception applies, the records must be released, Cal. Gov. Code section 6255(a).

Acknowledging that public employee salary information constitutes a public record, the court looked to a statutory exception which prohibits the release of “[p]ersonnel ... files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Cal. Gov. Code section 6254(c). The court held that regardless of whether salary information constitutes personnel files, disclosure does not amount to an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” because public employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their salaries.

“[W]e recognize that many individuals, including public employees, may be uncomfortable with the prospect of others knowing their salary and that many of these individuals would share that information only on a selective basis ... . Nonetheless, in light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual’s expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.

All seven justices agreed that as a general rule, governments must release public employee salary information, but two justices dissented in part, arguing California law safeguards salaries of police officers.

George also dismissed the constitutional argument raised by the employee unions based on the same reasoning. The California Constitution guarantees a right to privacy, but only where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy under the circumstances.” Here, public employees have no “reasonable expectation of privacy in the amount of their salaries,” George wrote.

Moving to a statutory argument raised by the police officers union, the court held that salary information is not “personal data.” Cal. Penal Code sectionsection 832.7, 832.8. The California Penal Code prohibits disclosure of “personal data” related to police officers. George held that while the salary information relates to a specific person, “it is a matter of public interest and not a matter of the individual’s private business.” The Penal Code exemption was intended to protect information like advancement, appraisal, discipline, and complaints; not salary.

Finally, the court limited two appellate court decisions on which the city and the interveners had relied. The decisions created confusion about the proper interpretation of California’s statutes and constitutional provisions related to privacy and open government, the high court said.

In the first case, Teamsters Local 856 v. Priceless, 3 Cal. Rptr. 3d 847 (Cal. Ct. App. 2003), the appellate court upheld the grant of a preliminary injunction sought by public employee unions to prevent the release of salary information tied to names. The court held that salary along with the position would provide enough information, and there was no reason to release the names.

George dismissed Priceless, calling its precedential value “slight.” In Priceless the media presented only “speculative” arguments that names tied to salary information would expose “improprieties.” Here, the Contra Costa Times, along with other local and national newspapers that joined as amicus curiae, presented “numerous examples of articles” that used salary information to “illustrate claimed nepotism, favoritism, or financial mismanagement in state and local government.”

The court cited a newspaper article that revealed a city department manager’s wife earned $80,000 as an information technology specialist in his department, while a budget shortfall in that department forced layoffs of other employees.

George also repudiated the second decision, City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court, 3 Cal. Rptr. 3d 915 (Cal. Ct. App. 2003). In City of Los Angeles, the appellate court reasoned that “payroll information is personal” and thus protected by the California Constitution, but upheld a subpoena of police officers’ financial records. Because the court ultimately released the records, George dismissed the argument as dicta and expressly rejected the case to the extent it remained inconsistent with the current case.

Two justices wrote separately, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Both agreed with the majority that public employee salary data are public records. However, the dissenters argued that police officers’ names, unlike the names of other public employees, are exempt from disclosure under the Penal Code.

Police officers’ names are “personal data” protected by the penal code, Associate Justice Ming W. Chin wrote. Thus, a request for salary information linked to officers’ names should be denied under the statute. “[H]owever, the request [that] identifies officers by name and asks for disclosure of their salaries” is not precluded by the Penal Code.

Contra Costa Times executive editor Kevin Keane said he was pleased with the outcome. “Unfortunately, it’s been the instinct of many government bureaucrats nowadays to slam the door on inquiries for public information, and the Priceless decision always gave them the ammunition they needed,” he said in an August 28 Contra Costa Times story. “Monday’s court ruling put Priceless in its rightful place. It’s a great win for the First Amendment.”

But Duane Reno, a labor union lawyer, questioned the court’s commitment to privacy rights, the Contra Costa Times reported. “The California Supreme Court doesn’t think it’s important if you have people calling you when you don’t want to be called,” he said referencing the union’s argument that disclosure of the names and salaries would expose well-paid public employees to commercial solicitation.

- Michael Schoepf, Silha Research Assistant

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 21, 2009 11:19 AM.

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