Minnesota Department of Administration Advisory Opinion 05-006

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.

Note: The Minnesota Supreme Court inĀ Burks v. Metropolitan Council, No. A14-1651 (Minn. Aug. 24, 2016), held that data subjects have the right to access data about themselves, even if the data in question identify private data on other individuals.

Facts and Procedural History:

On December 8, 2004, IPAD received a letter dated December 6, 2004, from Karen Kepple, an attorney representing Independent School District 624. In her letter, Ms. Kepple asked the Commissioner to issue an advisory opinion regarding the classification of certain data the District maintains.

A summary of the facts as Ms. Kepple provided them is as follows. She wrote:

This letter is to request an advisory opinion…as to one parent's right to access data that includes both data about [his/her] child and private data about [his/her] former spouse, parent B. The data requested by parent A cannot be separated or redacted in a way which would effectively permit release of the data pertaining to the child, and prevent release of the private data pertaining to parent B.

Ms. Kepple provided a copy of the data in question, in redacted form.

Ms. Kepple further wrote:

…parent A, has requested invoices for the extended day care provided by [the District] for the benefit of [his/her] minor child. The school district recognizes that a non-custodial parent has the same right to access educational data about [his/her] child as the custodial parent. However, the request is complicated by the fact that the data requested pertaining to the child, is inseparable from the data specifically pertaining [sic] the contract parent B has with [the District] for the provision of day care services and [his/her] financial obligations to [the District] resulting from that contract….

Ms. Kepple explained that the District's directory information policy provides that the name, address, and telephone number of a student's parent(s) are public data.

She stated:

Thus, under school district policy, other data relating to a parent is private data and cannot be released to the other parent, absent the parent's written consent. Parent B objects strongly to the release of the invoices to parent A. The school district has released, upon request of parent A, the months and years of attendance at the day care program, which is data pertaining to the child, but not the actual invoices for those dates of attendance, as requested by parent A….



Issue:

In her request for an opinion, Ms. Kepple asked the Commissioner to address the following issue:

Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, what is the classification of the following data that School District 624 (White Bear Lake Area Schools) maintains: data in certain invoices relating to extended day care that the District provides for a particular child?


Discussion:

The Commissioner notes that the analysis in this opinion is based upon the assumption that the data about the child of parent A and B are educational data; therefore, they are classified pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 13.32.

Pursuant to section 13.32, subdivision 2(c), data concerning parents are classified as private data on individuals but school districts have the option of designating them as public directory information. (See also section 13.32, subdivision 5.) Ms. Kepple provided a copy of the District's policy on Protection and Privacy of Pupil Records, which states that the name, address, and telephone number of a student's parent(s) are public directory information. Given the category types in the invoices, i.e., date, category, child, class, description, charges, credits & payments, and balance, it appears that most, if not all, of the data in the invoices are private data about parent B and the child.

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 can be clearly demonstrated to be only incidental to the data and the data are not accessed by the name or other identifying data of any individual." (See section 13.02, subdivision 5.)

Pursuant to section 13.04, parent A is entitled to gain access to any data in the invoices of which s/he is the subject. In addition, pursuant to section 13.02, subdivision 8, and Minnesota Rules, section 1205.0500, subpart 2, parent A also is entitled to gain access to data of which his/her child is the subject.

In her opinion request, Ms. Kepple noted that the District already has released to Parent A the months and years the child attended the day care program. The issue before the Commissioner is whether the District may release the data in the invoices.

In Advisory Opinion 02-042, the Commissioner addressed a similar situation:

…Neither the statute nor the implementing rules address the issue that Rice County raised in its response to X's opinion request, i.e., what should a government entity do when a parent requests access to data about his/her minor child and release of the data about the minor may inadvertently or directly reveal data about the other parent?

In many situations where government entities maintain data about a minor child, particularly when the parents were never married or currently are divorced, one can argue that release of any data about the child in response to a data request by one of the parents will inadvertently or directly release data about the other parent….

However, as stated above, the Legislature has placed great import on the policy that parents are entitled, in most cases, to gain access to data about their children. Therefore, a government entity should not be precluded from providing data to one parent simply because doing so may mean the entity inadvertently or directly releases data about the other parent. To accept the contrary view would, in many instances, effectively and absolutely thwart the legislative policy set forth in section 13.02, subdivision 8.

The Commissioner finds it appropriate to comment that in a recent unpublished case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals deliberated on the issues discussed in 02-042 and concluded that the custodial parent was the subject of the data, not the child. The Court stated:

The name of [the child] only appears in the file incidentally in relation to [the custodial parent's] benefits application. Therefore, because any references to [the child] are 'only incidental to the data and the data [is] not accessed by the name or other identifying data of [the child], [the non-custodial parent] is not entitled to access the remaining portions of [the custodial parent's] file.

Seeber v. Weiers, et al., No. A04-288 (Minn. Ct. App. October 12, 2004) (unpublished).

It is important to note that the Seeber case is unpublished and, pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 480A.08, subdivision 3, carries no precedential value. Thus, it does not control the outcome here.

When a government entity is faced with redacting a document containing private data on multiple data subjects, it is important for the entity to review the document carefully to determine whether the release of private data to one data subject will result in the inappropriate release of private data about another data subject. Here, the District is in the best position to make such determinations because it has all of the relevant information and is knowledgeable about the circumstances. The Commissioner, though, offers the following guidance. Pursuant to section 13.04, parent A is entitled to gain access to any data in the invoices of which s/he is the subject. In addition, pursuant to section 13.02, subdivision 8, and Minnesota Rules, section 1205.0500, subpart 2, parent A also is entitled to gain access to data of which his/her child is the subject, i.e., the child's name or other identifying data are not incidental to the other data in the document(s).


Opinion:

Based on the facts and information provided, my opinion on the issue that Ms. Kepple raised is as follows:

Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13, it appears that certain invoices relating to extended day care that School District 624 (White Bear Lake Area Schools) provides for a particular child contain private data about Parent B and the child. Parent A is entitled to gain access to any data of which A or A's child is the subject.

Signed:

Dana B. Badgerow
Commissioner

Dated: January 27, 2005