A January 13 Appeals Court decision addressed the issue of deleting student initials from school attorney invoices when complying with a public record request. When the state institution has a legitimate interest in protecting individual confidentiality, those deletions are appropriate.
A February 2015 trial court order denied a request for un-redacted records under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The request was for the Board of Ed attorney to provide his invoices for a three-month period. The documents were produced, but all student initials were deleted. On appeal, the requesting party argued that the lower judge was wrong in denying the request to produce the un-redacted documents.
Access to public records is not absolute. The law provides that you are generally entitled to request that any public institution provide records/documentation. The purpose of OPRA is to create transparency in government, and allow people access to information about how public institutions operate. For example, as here, attorney invoices showing billable work done are such documents. However, such documents may be redacted to remove information relating to attorney-client privilege.
Moreover, OPRA provides protections for private citizen’s personal information. There must be a balance between allowing people access to documents and protecting personal information. The state supreme court developed a seven-part test to determine whether that information is properly part of a public privacy consideration.
The requesting party here said that courts almost always use initials to protect the identity of a minor, and the same standard should be used for OPRA requests. The appeals judge disagreed that such a blanket standard should extend to all public institutions. Here, there is a legitimate concern that disclosing student initials would violate federal education privacy law [see 20 U.S.C. 1232(g)].
Moreover, that judge agreed with the trial court decision that “the students’ privacy interests outweigh plaintiff’s asserted reasons for demanded access to the information.” The court also noted that revealing the initials could also potentially allow the requestor to determine which students are in special education programs/classifications and the “extent of legal involvement in their educations.”
Finally, the appeals court wrote that: “without the identifying initials, it is still clear from the records provided that [the requestor] is able to determine what work was done, how much time was spent on each task, the amount charged, and the amount of entries entered by counsel. Such a course eliminates plaintiff’s need for student initials altogether, while preserving defendants’ interest in maintaining confidentiality of the students’ identities.” Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.