Florida court reverses opinion on FERPA case involving confidentiality of student complaint against professor

FLORIDA — A Florida appeals court has reversed its opinion in a student privacy case, ruling last month that the college does not have to disclose to a professor the name of a student who sent an email complaining of his classroom behavior and teaching methods.

The ruling, issued by Florida’s First District Court of Appeals in March, says that the email is protected under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Darnell Rhea, a former adjunct mathematics professor at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., asked to see the email after his contract wasn’t renewed in 2009. Rhea, who denies the allegations in the email, said he believes the student who wrote wrote the email never attended a full class meeting.

When the school gave him the email, it had redacted the student’s name. Shortly after, Rhea filed his suit. A trial court had initially agreed with the school before Rhea appealed.

Last July, Judge Stephanie Ray wrote in a unanimous decision that the student’s email did not directly relate to the student as an educational record and ordered its release.

“The fundamental character of the e-mail relates directly to the instructor; the fact that it was authored by a student does not convert it into an ‘education record,’” Ray wrote in the appeals court’s opinion.

Santa Fe appealed that decision and requested an en banc hearing, meaning the case would be heard in front of all the full roster of appellate court judges. More than two dozen colleges and universities in the state backed Santa Fe with a supporting brief.

But the panel, without first ever approving or denying the motion, superseded its first opinion with a new one in March that recognizes the content of the email is “not merely peripheral or tangential” to the student but rather “describes that student’s personal impressions of the classroom education atmosphere.” Further, it argues a record can “directly relate” — to use the language of FERPA — to both a student and a professor.

“Although Rhea may be the primary subject of the e-mail, the e-mail also directly relates to its student author,” the ruling says. “If a record contains information directly related to a student, then it is irrelevant under the plain language in FERPA that the record may also contain information directly related to a teacher or another person.”

The new opinion from the court also denies Rhea declaratory relief because the email “did not rise to the level of a complaint and never triggered” the formal procedures that require a student to first approach the professor before filing an official complaint.

Rhea, in an interview Monday, called the unanimous reversal an “extremely rare scenario” which was probably driven by the 27 Florida schools that signed the amicus brief.

“I thought the pressure got to be too much on the three of them,” Rhea said. “That’s pretty doggone bad, but I thought it was a well-written opinion, and really I can’t fault them a whole lot about the fact that they reversed their opinion because, boy, I stirred up a hornet’s nest.”

Although he maintained that the email should be considered only tangentially related to the student, he said he felt vindicated enough that he had at least “won the first round.”

“Because the court went into so many discussions about the public records law, my case will be the one they cite [in the future],” he said. “I can’t say it’s exactly enjoyable, but it’s satisfying I was able to do as much as I did. I had them scared there for a while.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it’s a shame the court issued a new opinion so quickly and without warning. If the court had simply responded to the school’s request for an en banc hearing with a “yes,” LoMonte said, the SPLC and similar organizations would’ve had a chance to submit briefs.

“But by just withdrawing the earlier opinion and substituting this later opinion, they’ve deprived us of that opportunity,” LoMonte said. “They got it right the first time.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.