School district investigation is exempt from disclosure, but sealed minutes may not be

Union Leader Corp. v.Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District
Union Leader Corp. v.Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District
No. 216-2012-CV-00450, Hillsborough Superior Court North
Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The following summary is based on a decision of the superior court. Please note that (a) superior court opinions are not binding on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and (b) at the time this summary went to print, it was still possible for this decision to be appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

This superior court case, while not binding on other courts, provides additional guidance on the application of the “internal personnel practices” and “invasion of privacy” exemptions to disclosure under RSA Chapter 91-A, the Right to Know Law. Under RSA 91-A:4, all governmental records are subject to public disclosure unless they are exempted by another statutory provision.

The Union Leader Corporation requested copies of several documents from the School District relating to the investigation and resignation of the former superintendent. The School District provided most of them, but refused to provide copies of an independent investigator’s report, sealed minutes of a nonpublic session, and documents associated with the nonpublic session.

As to the investigator’s report into alleged misconduct by the superintendent, the Court agreed with the School District that it was categorically exempt from disclosure because it was a record “pertaining to internal personnel practices.” RSA 91-A:5, IV. This is one of the few cases in which the “internal personnel practices” exemption has been applied to situations other than police internal investigations.

The Court’s ruling on the sealed minutes and associated documents was more complex. The School District claimed the minutes and documents were exempt because disclosure would invade the privacy of people involved in the investigation. RSA 91-A:5, VI. The Court applied the three-step test first articulated in Lamy v. N.H. Public Utilities Comm’n, 152 N.H. 106 (2005), the first step of which is to determine if there is a privacy interest at stake. In this case, much of the information in the minutes and other documents was private but had already been released to the public, so the privacy interest was minimal. Finding (without stating) that the public did have an interest in disclosure, the Court determined that the public’s interest outweighed the privacy interest, and ordered the records disclosed. However, the Court ordered the documents disclosed “with proper redactions.” It is not clear exactly what information was redacted, but it leaves open the interesting possibility that portions of sealed meeting minutes are not, in fact, exempt from disclosure. It remains to be seen how this new twist develops.