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Predisik v. Spokane School Dist. No. 81

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

April 2, 2015

Anthony J. Predisik et al. , Petitioners ,
Spokane School District No. 81 , Respondent

Argued October 28, 2014

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Appeal from Spokane County Superior Court. 12-2-01332-7. Honorable Linda G Tompkins.

Tyler M. Hinckley (of Montoya Hinckley PLLC ), for petitioners.

Paul E. Clay and Brian E. Kistler (of Stevens Clay & Manix PS ); and Philip J. Buri (of Buri Funston Mumford PLLC ), for respondent.

William J. Crittenden and Patrick D. Brown on behalf of Washington Coalition for Open Government, amicus curiae.

Margaret Ji Yong Pak, Sarah A. Dunne, and Douglas B. Klunder on behalf of American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, amicus curiae.

Tyler K. Firkins and Stephanie L. Beach on behalf of Washington Education Association, amicus curiae.

Ramsey E. Ramerman on behalf of Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, amicus curiae.

AUTHOR: Justice Yu. WE CONCUR: Chief Justice Madsen, Justice Johnson, Justice Stephens, Justice González. AUTHOR: Justice Fairhurst. WE CONCUR: Justice Owens, Justice Wiggins, Justice Gordon McCloud.


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[182 Wn.2d 900] Yu, J.

¶ 1 This case involves two public school employees who are on paid administrative leave while their employer investigates allegations of misconduct. We must decide if public records that reveal these investigations are occurring--but do not describe the allegations being investigated--implicate the employees' privacy rights under the Public Records Act (PRA), chapter 42.56 RCW. We hold they do not. Because no exemption applies to withhold the records from public inspection, we reverse and remand with instructions to order the records at issue disclosed in their entirety without redaction.

[182 Wn.2d 901]Facts and Procedural History

¶ 2 Anthony J. Predisik and Christopher Katke are longtime employees of the Spokane School District No. 81 (District). In late 2011 and early 2012, the District began to investigate Predisik and Katke after individuals made separate, unrelated allegations against the two employees. The substance behind those allegations is not in the record, but the District's investigations are apparently ongoing and entering their fourth year. The District placed Predisik and Katke on administrative leave and has paid salaries to both employees while it investigates.

¶ 3 In the spring of 2012, two media outlets submitted public records requests to the District. One request sought the " administrative leave letter given to Anthony Predisik, a Shadle Park High School counselor." Clerk's Papers at 50. The other request asked for " information on all district employees currently on paid/non-paid administrative leave." Id. at 331. The requests returned three public records relevant to this dispute.

¶ 4 The first record is Predisik's " administrative leave letter," a short letter informing Predisik that he has been placed on administrative leave " pending completion of the District's investigation into allegations of inappropriate interactions with a former student." Ex. P-1. It also tells Predisik he is banned from district property and from talking with students about the matter during the investigation. The letter does not describe the allegations in any further detail and does not name Predisik's accuser.

¶ 5 The second and third records are spreadsheets that document the amount of leave pay Predisik and Katke had accumulated through April 2012. Exs. P-2, P-3. The spreadsheets, one for each employee, contain columns for the employee's name, the date of pay, the hours paid, the rate of pay, and a position code. Id. The final column indicates the reason for leave, which is described generically for both [182 Wn.2d 902] Predisik and Katke as " [a]llegations currently under investigation." Id. Similar to the leave letter, the spreadsheets provide no further detail about the allegations or the accusers.

¶ 6 Predisik and Katke separately sued the District to enjoin disclosure of the leave letter and spreadsheets, alleging each record is exempt under the " [p]ersonal information" and " investigative" record exemptions of RCW 42.56.230(3) and 42.56.240(1). The District opposed the injunction and argued the

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leave letter and spreadsheets should be disclosed. [1] The trial court consolidated the two cases, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. Citing our opinion in Bellevue John Does 1-11 v. Bellevue School District No. 405, 164 Wn.2d 199, 189 P.3d 139 (2008), the trial court found that Predisik's and Katke's identities, but not the records themselves, were exempt from disclosure under RCW 42.56.230(3). The judge ordered all three records disclosed with Predisik's and Katke's names redacted. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Predisik v. Spokane Sch. Dist. No. 81, 179 Wn.App. 513, 319 P.3d 801 (2014).

¶ 7 We granted review to clarify when the PRA will recognize a right to privacy in the identity of a public employee who is the subject of an open investigation by his or her public employer. Predisik v. Spokane Sch. Dist. No. 81, 180 Wn.2d 1021, 328 P.3d 903 (2014).


¶ 8 The PRA requires that agencies " shall make available for public inspection and copying all public records," subject only to a handful of statutory exemptions. RCW 42.56.070(1); see also Progressive Animal Welfare Soc'y v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 260, 884 P.2d 592 [182 Wn.2d 903] (1994) ( PAWS II). The PRA ensures the sovereignty of the people and the accountability of the governmental agencies that serve them by providing full access to information concerning the conduct of government. PAWS II, 125 Wn.2d at 251. To effectuate that policy, we start with the presumption that all public records are subject to disclosure. Agencies can withhold a record only if it falls within one of the PRA's specific, limited exemptions. RCW 42.56.070(1). These exemptions are narrow, and we apply them in favor of partial disclosure where possible since " the PRA's purpose of open government remains paramount." Resident Action Council v. Seattle Hous. Auth., 177 Wn.2d 417, 432, 327 P.3d 600 (2013); see also RCW 42.56.070(1) (requiring that agencies redact records only " [t]o the extent required to prevent an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy interests protected by [the PRA]" and produce the remainder of the record). Similarly, the PRA reminds us " that free and open examination of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others." RCW 42.56.550(3).

¶ 9 Predisik and Katke argue that two of the PRA's exemptions independently justify withholding the leave letter and spreadsheets from disclosure. First, the employees assert the records contain personal information, the disclosure of which would violate their rights to privacy. RCW 42.56.230(3). Second, they argue the records constitute investigative records that are essential to law enforcement. RCW 42.56.240(1). We apply each exemption in turn.

A. Personal information exemption

¶ 10 Predisik and Katke rely principally on RCW 42.56.230(3), which exempts from disclosure " [p]ersonal information in files maintained for employees ... of any public agency to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy." Application of this exemption involves three separate questions: (1) whether the records [182 Wn.2d 904] contain personal information, (2) whether the employees have a privacy interest in that personal information, and (3) whether disclosure of that personal information would violate their right to privacy. Bellevue John Does, 164 Wn.2d at 210. The first question is not in dispute. The leave letter and spreadsheets, which identify Predisik and Katke by name, contain " 'personal information' [i.e., the employees' identities] because they relate to particular people." Id. at 211.

¶ 11 The existence of " personal information" in a public record is necessary to the exemption, but it is not sufficient alone to withhold the record. Employees must also demonstrate that they have a right to privacy in personal information contained in a ...

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