In International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers v. The Superior Court of Alameda County, (— Cal.Rptr. 3d —, 2007 WL 2410093, Cal., Aug. 27, 2007), the California Supreme Court considered whether the names and salaries of public employees, including peace officers, are exempt from public disclosure under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The Supreme Court held that such information is not exempt from public disclosure.
The City of Oakland (“City”) refused a request under the CPRA to provide reporters from Contra Costa Newspapers, Inc. (“Newspapers”) with information including the names, job titles, and gross salaries of all City’s employees who earned $100,000 or more for the fiscal year 2003-2004. The reporters sought information about employees whose base salary was $100,000 or more and also about employees whose base salary was less than $100,000 but who earned more than $100,000 as a result of overtime pay. The City refused to give salary information linked to individual employees, but agreed to disclose salary information for each job classification.
Newspapers filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the City to disclose the requested information. Two employee unions, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the Oakland Peace Officers Association (“Unions”) intervened in the lawsuit. The superior court ordered the City to disclose the requested information. The Unions filed petitions for writ of mandate in the Court of Appeals, which subsequently denied the Unions’ petitions.
The California Supreme Court held that the disclosure of the information requested by the Newspapers is not exempt from disclosure under the CPRA, the disclosure of the information does not violate the employees’ right of privacy, and Penal Code Sections 832.7 and 832.8 do not mandate that peace officer salary information must be excluded from disclosure under the CPRA.
The CPRA mandates open access to public records. The public is entitled access to “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business owned, used or retained by any state or local agency” unless one of the exceptions stated in the act applies. There are numerous exceptions to disclosure under the CPRA that are designed to protect individual privacy. In addition to the enumerated exceptions, the CPRA provides a catchall exception that applies if “on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.”
The parties agreed that the records containing the information sought by the Newspapers are public records within the meaning of the CPRA. The records, therefore, must be disclosed unless one of the exceptions applies. The Unions asserted that the exemption applicable here is the one for “[p]ersonnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Court concluded that it need not decide whether the City’s “payroll expenditures constitute ‘personnel . . . or similar files’ because, assuming for purposes of discussion that they do, the exemption does not apply” because the disclosure of the requested information “does not constitute an ‘unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.'”
The Court balanced the public interest in disclosure of the information against the individual employee’s interest in personal privacy. “[I]n 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.” There is a strong public interest in knowing how a government spends its money and public access to such information makes it possible to expose corruption and other problems.
The Court rejected the argument that the exemption to disclosure must be applied on a case-by-case basis in order to take into account the privacy interest of an individual employee. Such an approach “would reverse the presumption of openness” under the CPRA.
Disclosure of the salary information requested by Newspapers does not constitute an invasion of privacy under the California Constitution. One union argued that the database of employees who make $100,000 or more per year would be of great commercial interest to marketers who could use the information in the database to look up contact information for an individual employee. The Court concluded that the interest of employees seeking to avoid unwanted solicitations is weak when compared to the public’s strong interest in the amount of salary paid to public employees.
The Court also rejected the argument that the disclosure of the salary information is barred by Penal Code section 832.7 which provides that the personnel records of peace officers are confidential. Personnel records is defined by Penal Code section 832.8 as “any file maintained under that individual’s name by his or her employing agency and containing records relating” to personal data, medical history, election of employee benefits, personnel decision, complaints or investigations of complaints, and “other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Court concluded that, although a public employee’s salary relates to a particular person, it is a matter of public interest. Section 832.8 does not include salary information within its parameters and if the Legislature had meant for it to cover such information it could have easily added salary to the types of data listed in the statute. The Court rejected the notion that peace officers in general have a greater privacy interest in the amount of their salaries than the interest held by other public employees.