Names and retirement benefits are not exempt from disclosure under ‘invasion of privacy’ exemption

Union Leader Corp. v. New Hampshire Retirement System
Union Leader Corp. v. New Hampshire Retirement System
No. 2010-784
Thursday, November 3, 2011

The plaintiffs requested documents containing the names of the 500 State retirement system members who received the highest annual pension payments in 2009, along with the amount each person received that year. The Retirement System argued that this information was exempt as “records whose disclosure would constitute an invasion of privacy” under RSA 91-A:4, IV. The Court analyzed the request using the three-part test established in Lamy v. NH PUC, 152 N.H. 106 (2005) (discussed in the June 2005 issue of New Hampshire Town and City): (1) Is there a privacy interest at stake that would be invaded by the disclosure? If yes, (2) what is the general public’s interest in disclosure? (3) Balance the public interest in disclosure against the government interest in nondisclosure and the individual’s privacy interest.

Addressing the first question, the Court rejected the idea that public retirees have any greater privacy interest in information associating their names with the amounts of their retirement benefits than the interest public employees have in information linking their names and salaries. As to the second part, the Court noted that “knowing how a public body is spending taxpayer money in conducting public business is essential to the transparency of government, the very purpose underlying the Right to Know Law.” The information regarding the benefits paid to individual retirees may be used to uncover potential governmental error or corruption, the Court noted, and held that to the extent public funds are used to pay the benefits, the public has some interest in knowing the amounts and to whom they are paid. Applying the balancing of these competing interests, then, the Court found that privacy interest in the names of public retirees and the amount of their benefits was on a par with the interest of public employees in their names and salaries, and that this minor interest was outweighed by the public’s interest in having that information disclosed.