Court ruling threatens to gut California’s public records law

It is going to be much easier for governments to hide their affairs from the public, if the legal standard put forth in a just-issued Sacramento County court ruling is upheld.

Last year, Transparent California filed a public records lawsuit against CalPERS after the agency refused to disclose records identifying whether a public pension is of either a “service” or “disability” classification.

This one-word identifier is routinely released by two dozen other California pension funds, as well as public pension funds in other states like Oregon and New Jersey.

Disclosure of such information would assist in detecting disability fraud, which has cost taxpayers untold millions. In fact, CalPERS encourages the public to report cases of suspected fraud and abuse to its own disability fraud tip line, despite the agency’s refusal to provide the public with the basic information necessary to assist in those efforts.

While no statute makes the requested one-word identifier confidential, medical records and other sensitive information filed by an employee with CalPERS to support their claim of disability are exempt from disclosure pursuant to California Government Code 20230.

In ruling in favor of CalPERS, the Court held that providing the requested one-word pension type identifier is “tantamount to disclosing” that individual’s medical records and is thus exempt from disclosure pursuant to Code 20230.

But such an expansive interpretation of this confidentiality statute is expressly prohibited by state law and the California Constitution, which requires courts to construe “narrowly” all statutes that limit access to public records.

Furthermore, the one-word identifier is not information filed by a member, which is properly and plainly exempt from disclosure, but instead represents a governmental decision made by CalPERS.

The Court justified making this one-word identifier confidential because CalPERS relies on medical records and other pieces of confidential information when making the determination as to whether to issue a disability pension.

It is this part of the court’s ruling that could end up gutting the public records law, according to Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner.

“If this standard is adopted, governments across the state will be given free rein to hide their affairs in secrecy,” Fellner said. “It is precisely the most important type of public records, like those related to misconduct, that would be rendered confidential under this standard.

“More than 80 percent of Californians approved a constitutional amendment precisely to prevent this type of ruling, which will be used to steadily erode the public’s right to know by expanding confidentiality provisions far beyond their plain text and intent,” Fellner added.

“We will be appealing this ruling,” Fellner concluded.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. The website is used by millions of Californians each year, including elected officials and lawmakers, government employees and their unions, government agencies, university researchers, the media, and concerned citizens alike. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.