Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.
Dear Legal Mailbag:
It is tough being a coach, as I know from personal experience. I was the boys basketball coach before getting this gig as principal. Given my experience, I like to give the coaches at my school advice as to how they can better do their jobs. I confess that they don’t always appreciate my insights into their deficiencies, and some have even complained to the athletic director that I should knock it off.
Recently, a parent complained to me about the boys basketball coach, the fellow who succeeded me in that position (who does not otherwise work for the school district). The parent conceded that his son is a mediocre player at best, but he thinks that the coach is too fixated on winning and should give all of the student athletes an opportunity to play. As it turns out, I have been critical of the coach for this very thing, and I have sent a number of emails to him, sometimes even during a game, telling him to substitute more to give the less-gifted athletes a chance to play. He has questioned whether my ongoing criticism of him isn’t just jealousy on my part. I concede that he has turned around the program around since he took over, and it is now a much more successful team. But I measure success in high school sports as more than the win/loss record.
People also accuse me of not getting to the point, so let me do that. This parent must be a lawyer or something, because now he has made a Freedom of Information request for “a copy of the evaluation(s) of the coach along with any and all other evaluative records” related to this coach. I wrote back to inform this parent that, while I am sympathetic to his concerns, we must be respectful of the new coach’s privacy and that the information he has requested, if it exists, is “personnel file information” that is private and exempt from disclosure.
The parent went nuts when he got my response, and his last email to me was rather nasty, accusing me of a “cover-up” and threatening to file a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission. But I don’t want to violate the coach’s rights, especially because he already thinks I am jealous of his success. Help!
Principal Caught in the Middle
There is no broad category of confidential “personnel file information” under the Freedom of Information Act, and in this case you must provide this parent with the records that are responsive to his request. To be sure, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 1-210(b) provides an exemption from disclosure for “(2) Personnel or medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of personal privacy.” However, the Connecticut Supreme Court has interpreted this exemption very narrowly, given the public policy behind the FOIA. Over twenty years ago, it ruled that personnel file records are subject to public disclosure and not exempt under this provision unless (1) the record does not pertain to a legitimate matter of public concern, and (2) disclosure of the records would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. Generally, that means that information in the personnel file is subject to disclosure unless it is exempt from disclosure by statute or highly personal information unrelated to the employee’s job responsibilities, such as medical information.
Compounding the problem for you, dear Principal, is the fact that the Freedom of Information Commission has interpreted “personnel file” as a category of records, not a geographical location. It is not important that a record be included in the physical personnel file, but, rather, any record that the school district maintains and that relates to one’s employment should be considered part of the “personnel file” when that is requested. Applying these concepts to your situation, it is clear that your emails to the coach about how he is and is not playing the members of his team are responsive to the parent’s request and not exempt from disclosure.
Finally, you may have heard that “records of teacher performance and evaluation” are exempt from disclosure. That is true, as provided in Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-151c. However, that exemption from disclosure is quite narrow. First, if a coach (or any other employee) is not a teacher in the district, the exemption does not apply. Second, the law further specifies that records related to the personal misconduct of a teacher are outside the statutory exemption. Here, I concede that your concern about how the coach is playing the student athletes is not a concern over any “personal misconduct” on the coach’s part. However, since the coach is not a teacher in your district, that distinction is irrelevant, and the records the parent has requested are subject to public disclosure.
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