Public Records Act Did Not Require School District To Produce Student Academic Growth Over Time Scores That Identified Individual Teacher Names Tied To Those Scores

The California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles Unified School District v.The Superior Court of Los Angeles County (July 23, 2014) 2014 WL 3615855, --- Cal.App.4th ---, recently held that unredacted academic growth over time scores revealing the names of individual teachers tied to those scores were exempt from disclosure under the "catch-all" exemption to the California Public Records Act because the public interest in non-disclosure of teachers' names under the particular circumstances clearly outweighed the public interest served by their disclosure.

Facts

The Los Angeles Unified School District ("District") developed a statistical model designed to measure a teacher's effect on his/her students' standardized test scores.  This statistical model yielded an Academic Growth Over Time score (AGT), derived from comparing students' actual student California Standards Test scores with scores students were predicted to achieve based on sociodemographic and other factors. 

The Los Angeles Times ("Times") requested production of the teacher AGT scores under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) (Govt. Code, section 6250 et seq.). The District denied the request, contending the scores were exempt from disclosure under both the privacy (Govt. Code section 6254(c).) and, catch-all (Govt. Code section 6255) exemptions.  While the District agreed to release individual teacher AGT scores it redacted individual teacher's names from the scores.  The Times filed suit against the District seeking a writ of mandate requiring the District to provide AGT scores of each teacher identified by name.  The trial court held that the teachers privacy interests did not "clearly outweigh" the public's interest in disclosure, and individual names had to be disclosed. The District appealed the trial court's decision.

Decision

The appellate court reversed the trial court's ruling holding the District could redact the names of teachers under the CPRA catch-all exemption allowing a government agency to withhold records if it can demonstrate the public interest in nondisclosure outweighs the public interest served by disclosure.  

When analyzing whether the catch-all exemption under Section 6255 applied, the appellate court had to analyze the competing public interests and ascertain the weight of each for purposes of balancing those interests.  Based on evidence and arguments from the District, the appellate court found, among other things, that disclosure of the teachers' names could "spur unhealthy comparisons among teachers and breed discourse in the work place, discourage recruitment of quality candidates and/or cause existing teachers to leave the District, disrupt the balance of classroom assignments . . ., and adversely affect the disciplinary process."  Furthermore, the appellate court recognized based on "common sense" and basic understanding of human nature, that if parents had access to the individual names of teachers they foreseeably would attempt to move their child based on teacher scores resulting in discord in the workplace and disruption to the District's assignment of teachers. 

Since the appellate court determined disclosure would result in a detrimental impact on the overall functioning of the District, it concluded there was a substantial public interest in the nondisclosure of the names of the teachers tied to their individual AGT scores. 

The appellate court then weighed the identified substantial interest in non-disclosure against the public's interest in disclosing teacher names.  While the appellate court recognized that parents may have a private interest in knowing the AGT scores of their children's teachers, it confirmed that private interests are irrelevant to the catch-all exemption's analysis.  The appellate court found that disclosing names of teachers tied to their AGT scores when redacted scores and related information had already been produced contributed "little, if anything, to furthering the public interest in how the District is carrying out its statutory duties."  Therefore, the appellate court concluded that the public interest in non-disclosing teacher names linked to AGT scores clearly outweighed the public interest, if any, served by disclosing those names.

What This Means To You

While the appellate court held that the names of individual teachers tied to AGT scores were exempt from disclosure under the catch-all exemption to the CPRA, it cautioned that it was not making an "immutable" (absolute) rule as to whether unredacted AGT scores may be subject to disclosure under different facts or circumstances that may arise in the future.  The applicability of the catch-all exemption is a very fact specific inquiry requiring an analysis and balancing of public interests on case-by-case basis, and under different circumstances teacher names tied to performance scores may be subject to disclosure. 

Also, since the appellate court determined that the catch-all exemption was applicable, it did not address or decide whether disclosure of individual teacher names tied to AGT scores would constitute an unwarranted invasion of teacher privacy under the section 6254(c) privacy exemption.  Therefore, the privacy exemption may be asserted by public agencies in similar situations in the future.

Topics:  Public Records, Public Records Act, Student Records

Published In: Civil Procedure Updates, Education Updates, Labor & Employment Updates, Privacy Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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