McKee v. Peoria Unified School District: Court of Appeals Reverses Judgment Against School District in Public Records Case

by Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, P.L.C.

In May, 2010, a student at a Peoria high school drowned during a swimming class supervised by physical education teacher Timothy McKee. After an internal investigation, the District sought to terminate McKee’s employment.

On August 24, 2010, after the District began termination proceedings, McKee sought six categories of public records from the District related to the drowning, the District’s investigation, and the termination process. Upon receipt of the request, the District’s human resources director/custodian of records began assembling the readily-available documents, including the District’s investigative file; requested documents from the school board and several other departments; and coordinated review/redaction of confidential/protected information.

Eight days later, McKee wrote to the District, complaining that he had not received a response and renewing his request, since the administrative termination proceedings were scheduled to begin on October 4, 2010. On September 9, 2010, McKee sued the District alleging the District violated the public records laws by failing to respond to his request.  On the same day, the District wrote to McKee outlining the status of its response. On September 13, 2010, the District provided McKee with a recording of an August 20 board meeting (one of the requested items). On September 16, 2010, the District produced over 150 pages of the investigative file and other records.  McKee then contacted the District regarding omitted notes of witness interviews. The HR director located and produced the notes, with the last notes ultimately being produced on October 3, 2010 -- 24 business days from the date of the original request.

After the public records lawsuit had been pending for over a year, McKee made a discovery request for “[t]he Log provided by the ‘school administration’ to the Glendale Police Department and referenced by Officer McMillan” in the police report attached to the statement of charges in the administrative proceeding.  The District denied having such a document.

By the time of trial, the only documents at issue were the District’s investigative file; the list of students present at the drowning; and a record of the executive session portion of the August 20, 2010 board meeting.  During a two day bench trial, the HR director testified that she mistakenly failed to produce all the interview notes initially but immediately did so upon learning of the omission. She testified that she first learned of a “log” from McKee’s discovery request.  School administrators thought this might be a sheet of paper on which students present at the drowning had written their names and contact information and turned over to the police.

The superior court ruled that the District’s response regarding the investigative file was not sufficiently prompt and awarded McKee his attorney’s fees.

The court of appeals reversed, finding that the District’s response was “prompt” within the meaning of the public records statute.  The superior court erroneously evaluated the promptness of the District’s production of the investigative file in isolation rather than in the context of the six categories of requested items.  Although one document may be readily available, immediate production of that item without waiting for the additional documents to be compiled is not required.  The District acted promptly by beginning to gather the information within 16 days of receipt of the request.  And although the District mistakenly neglected to produce portions of the file initially, it immediately corrected the oversight.  The District therefore did not act in bad faith.  As to the log of students present at the scene, while it had been created by the District, it was created and used for the police investigation, and was kept by the police department.  Thus, it was not a District record.  Further, McKee was already aware that the police department had the record, since they had given him a redacted version.  His request to the District for a document already in his possession conflated the public’s right to public records with his litigation-based discovery needs.  McKee’s Discovery disputes should be heard by the court in the employment termination action, not in a public records request lawsuit. 

Based on the judgment’s reversal, the court of appeals also vacated the award of attorney’s fees to McKee.

Read the Court's Opinion here.

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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