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:
On February 4, 2004, IPAD received a letter from Kevin Rupp and Eric Quiring, attorneys representing Independent School District 821, Menahga. In their letter, Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring asked the Commissioner to issue an advisory opinion regarding the classification of certain data the District maintains. In a letter dated February 10, 2004, IPAD notified the data subject, X, of the opinion request and invited him/her to submit comments.
In a letter dated February 9, 2004, Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring wrote to IPAD and provided some additional information. In a letter dated February 13, 2004, IPAD wrote to X and provided to him/her the additional information.
X did not submit comments.
A summary of the facts is as follows. In their January 30, 2004, letter, Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring wrote:
The District has received a request from [a member of the media] that the District provide him with copies of any complaints served on the District, Board or the administration. The enclosed document falls within the request made by [the media]. The enclosed document has not been filed in district court.
In their February 9, 2004, letter, Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring provided some additional information:
...After we submitted our request, we learned that the complaint that is the subject of the data request was filed in [district court].
The fact that the complaint has been filed in District Court does not automatically mean that copies of the complaint held by [the District] are "public." [Chapter 13] makes it clear that the task of determining the proper classification of data sought under [Chapter 13] is to be made on the basis of the status of the data in the hands of the entity from which the data is being sought....As a result, the fact that the complaint may be public and accessible as held by the District Court is not determinative on the question of the proper classification of the document in the hands of the School District.
In their request for an opinion, Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring asked the Commissioner to address the following issues:
Before proceeding, the Commissioner notes the following. The document in question is a complaint made against the District and its Superintendent. Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring did not provide any information as to the status of the complaint as it concerns the Superintendent. Pursuant to section 13.43, certain data may become public if the District takes any disciplinary action and there has been a final disposition (see section 13.43, subdivision 2(a)(5).) For purposes of this opinion, the Commissioner assumes no disciplinary action was taken and no final disposition has occurred.
Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, does the enclosed document contain private personnel data on former or current employees of the District?
Data on individuals collected and maintained because an individual is or was an employee or volunteer are classified pursuant to section 13.43, personnel data. Subdivision 2 of section 13.43 lists the types of personnel data that are public. Subdivision 4 of section 13.43 classifies most other types of personnel data as private. "Data on individuals" is defined as all government data in which any individual is or can be identified as the subject of the data, unless the appearance of the name or other identifying data clearly can be demonstrated to be only incidental to the data. (See section 13.02, subdivision 5.)
The Commissioner has examined the document in question. In his opinion, it contains data of which current and former employees are the subjects. Such data are classified pursuant to section 13.43. At least some of the data about the current and former employees are not the types of data classified as public pursuant to section 13.43, subdivision 2. Those data, therefore, are private pursuant to subdivision 4 of section 13.43.
Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring noted that the document in question was filed in district court. (Data relating to the judiciary are not subject to Chapter 13 but are subject to Minnesota's Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch.) Although the document likely is public in the hands of the court, it is not necessarily public in a government entity in which it also resides. Section 13.43 does not contain a provision stating that any data classified as not public become public if they have been presented as evidence in court or are made part of a court record. Therefore, the data in question do not convert to public data in the hands of the District. (Sections 13.39, civil investigative data, and 13.82, criminal investigative data do contain such a provision but they are not at issue here.)
Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, may the District release to the public a copy of the enclosed document after redacting all personal identifiers, or is the identifying information about former or current employees inextricably intertwined with other data in the document?
When a government entity is faced with redacting a document containing not public and public data, it is important for the entity to review the document carefully to determine whether the release of any of the data may result in the inappropriate release of not public data. Government entities are in the best position to make such determinations because they have all of the relevant information and are knowledgeable about the circumstances.
In Northwest Publications, Inc. v. City of Bloomington, 499 N.W.2d 509 (Minn.App. 1993), the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that entire documents may be withheld under Chapter 13 only when public and nonpublic information is so inextricably intertwined that segregation of the material would impose a significant financial burden and leave the remaining part of the document with little informational value. The Commissioner has addressed similar issues in other advisory opinions. (See 03-018, 03-001, 00-065, 96-002, and 94-034.)
Therefore, if it is not possible for the District to appropriately redact the document, it may withhold the entire document. However, it is important to note that the Commissioner, as well as the court in Northwest Publications, Inc., maintains that denial of access of data should occur only in situations where it is impossible to separate or redact the data appropriately. Given the clear presumption of openness in Chapter 13, the District should make every effort to avoid a situation where it must withhold an entire document from the public. The Commissioner adds that the District must disclose any public data in the document, including, pursuant to section 13.43, subdivision 2(a)(4), that a complaint was made against a member of the administration, the status of the complaint, and the name of the employee about whom the complaint was made.
Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issues raised by Mr. Rupp and Mr. Quiring is as follows:
Brian J. Lamb
Dated: March 11, 2004