This is an opinion of the Commissioner of Administration issued pursuant to section 13.072 of Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13 - the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. It is based on the facts and information available to the Commissioner as described below.
Facts and Procedural History:
For purposes of simplification, the information presented by the person who requested this opinion and the response from the government entity with which the person disagrees are presented in summary form. Copies of the complete submissions are on file at the offices of IPA and, except for any data classified as not public, are available for public access.
On November 1, 2000, IPA received a letter dated October 31, 2000, from X. In his/her letter, X requested that the Commissioner issue an opinion regarding X's access to certain data that Goodhue County maintains.
IPA, on behalf of the Commissioner, wrote to Greg Schoener, Director of Goodhue County Social Services, in response to X's request. The purposes of this letter, dated November 6, 2000, were to inform him of X's request and to ask him to provide information or support for the County's position. On November 13, 2000, IPA received comments, dated November 8, 2000, from Mr. Schoener.
A summary of the facts is as follows. On either September 7 or 8, X sent a letter to Goodhue County asking for, "[a]ll of the information in my Social Service file pursuant [sic] Data Privacy Act...regarding both myself and my [child]." X made several follow-up requests for the data.
Pursuant to a court order issued in June 1999, the Goodhue County District Court ruled that legal custody of X's child be returned to the child's other parent and that the County file a petition to terminate X's parental rights. According to documents submitted to the Commissioner, the final Termination hearing was set for November 9, 1999.
X wrote that s/he did receive some of the data.
In his/her request for an opinion, X asked the Commissioner to address the following issue:
Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.04, subdivision 3, when a data subject requests access to data of which s/he is the subject, government entities are required to respond within ten working days. Pursuant to section 13.02, subdivision 8, generally speaking, a parent is entitled to gain access to data about his/her minor child unless evidence exists that there is a law or court order governing such matters such as divorce, separation, or custody, or a legally binding instrument that provides to the contrary. See also Minnesota Rules, part 1205.0500, subpart 2.
In his comments, Mr. Schoener wrote:
On September 8, 1999 and again around September 15, 1999, [X] submitted written requests to our department for information we had regarding [X and X's child]. We immediately verbally informed [X] that it was our understanding that [X] was likely entitled to information about [X] and any children of whom [X] had custody, but that this did not include [X's child], for whom [X] did not have legal custody..."
The County Attorney's Office advised us to not respond to [X's] data information request, any further than we had already verbally done, because the County Attorney's office would address the data information request through the Court, and that data would be distributed once a Court Order is in place allowing that distribution.....
Again, on October 19 and October 20, 1999, the County Attorney [sic] wrote regarding [X's] data information request. In the October 19, 1999 County Attorney letter to [X'] legal counsel, it's pointed out that certain data information was turned over by the County Attorney's office to [X's] counsel at the previous week's Court hearing. In a follow-up letter...the County Attorney's Office reiterated that a plan for the release of documents was in place through the court system and that the Goodhue County Social Services had performed according to law.
As stated above, government entities must respond to requests for data from data subjects within ten days. In this case, the County did not submit any documentation indicating that X was, for any reason, restricted from gaining access to data about him/herself and his/her child. At the time of X's September requests, his/her parental rights had not been terminated. As the Commissioner wrote in Advisory Opinion 96-038:
...nowhere in Section 13.03 does it state that a government entity can require a person to make requests through his/her attorney. Nowhere in Section 13.03 does it state that a government entity can require a person to hire an attorney, and incur the resulting expense, so that the attorney can make requests on behalf of the person.
Thus, the Commissioner opines that the County did not respond appropriately to X's September 1999 data request(s). The County should have provided X with all public and private data about X and X's child.
Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issue raised by X is as follows:
David F. Fisher
Dated: December 22, 2000