Wash. Supreme Court rules state agencies can release records that detail employees’ misconduct investigations

WASHINGTON — Releasing documents that reveal a government employee is under investigation for misconduct allegations does not violate the employee’s privacy rights, the Washington Supreme Court ruled last week.

In a 5-4 decision on April 2, the state’s highest court reversed an appeals court’s ruling and determined such an investigation “is merely a status of their public employment, not an intimate detail of their personal lives.”

In 2012 and 2012, the Spokane School District put two employees on paid administrative leave and launched sexual misconduct investigations. When two news outlets submitted public records to the district to access files about the investigations, the employees sued to redact their names.

Washington’s Public Disclosure Act exempts information from employees’ personnel files “to the extent that disclosure would violate their right to privacy.” However, the court determined public records that reveal the existence of an investigation — but do not detail specific allegations — do not violate the employee’s privacy rights.

“Public employees are paid with public tax dollars and, by definition, are servants of and accountable to the public,” according to the opinion. “The people have a right to know who their public employees are and when those employees are not performing their duties.”

Although one of the employees remains on paid administrative leave, according to The Associated Press, the other resigned in October 2014.

Personnel files often contain information that is of public interest and importance, but such files also contain information that is none of the public’s business, like bank account numbers or social security numbers. Because of that mixture, gaining access to personnel files is often difficult.