Iowa Supreme Court Divided on Use of Balancing Test to Weigh “Confidential Personnel Records” Exemption to Open Records Requests

By: Administrator on August 3rd, 2012

[The following summary was written by Wade Hauser, a law clerk in Nyemaster Goode’s summer program.]

In American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Iowa, Inc. v. Records Custodian, Atlantic Community School District, No. 11-0095, the Iowa Supreme Court considered an open records request by the ACLU under Iowa’s Open Records Act. The ACLU requested records relating to the discipline of two school district employees who stripped searched five students. In response to the request, the school district released the names of the employees, but did not describe the discipline it imposed. The school district asserted this information was exempt from the Iowa Open Records Act under section 22.7(11), which exempts from disclosure “personal information in confidential personnel records of public bodies including but not limited to cities, boards of supervisions and school districts.”

When the school district refused to release the records, the ACLU sought an injunction to compel disclosure. The district court ruled that section 22.7(11) exempted the disciplinary reports from the open records requirement and granted summary judgment for the school district. The court of appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts by a four-to-three vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Wiggins held that the court must employ a one or two-step process to determine whether a sought after record falls within the “personal information in confidential personnel records” exemption. The court must first look to the language of the statute, Iowa precedent, and out-of-state case law to determine if the exemption covers the requested information. If the record falls within the exemption, the inquiry ends. If the record does not clearly fall within section 22.7(11), the court applies a balancing test to determine whether the section applies.

Writing in dissent, Chief Justice Cady, joined by Justices Waterman and Mansfield, argued that the majority overruled decades of case law by questioning whether Iowa uses a balancing test to determine if the requested information falls within the section 22.7(11) exemption; the dissent contended that the court has consistently used the balancing test in these circumstances. The dissent also argued that the majority’s decision undermined the intent of the open records act and that its “approach is a return to the government of the past and a danger to our future.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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