By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director
Sick-leave records do not qualify as personnel or medical information that must be withheld from the public under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), a judge ruled late Friday, dismissing a lawsuit brought by the Jefferson County teachers’ union against the Jeffco school district.
The decision by District Court Judge Christie B. Phillips won’t immediately result in the release of the names of teachers who collectively called in sick last fall to protest school board policies. Phillips granted a 14-day stay of judgment to give the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) an opportunity to appeal.
The JCEA sought a permanent injunction to block the release of the names, which had been requested by a Golden parent who was upset that high school classes were canceled last September 19 and September 29 because so many teachers used sick leave on those days. “I don’t want (those teachers) teaching my kids,” Kathy Littlefield told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition in February.
The union argued that teacher-absence records are “maintained because of the employer-employee relationship” and therefore are protected from disclosure under CORA’s personnel file exemption. But that phrase in the statute, Phillips noted, has been interpreted by the Colorado Court of Appeals to mean personal information of the same general nature as home addresses, telephone numbers and financial data.
“JCEA argues that sick leave records are ‘no less personal and deserving of protection from public disclosure’ than a teacher’s address, telephone number, or financial information,” the judge wrote. “The Court is not persuaded.”
The requested records do not qualify as confidential medical information under CORA because Littlefield asked only for the names of teachers who called in sick on two specific dates, not “the teachers’ reasons for doing so or for any other medical-related information,” Phillips added.
As to union’s contention that “the teachers may be compelled to reveal specific medical information to the public, should they need to defend themselves from attacks resulting from the release of the lists,” the judge found this argument to be “pure speculation and irrelevant to the issue of whether the sick leave records qualify as ‘medical’ under CORA.”
Phillips also rejected other arguments made by the JCEA, including that the records shouldn’t be considered compensation or benefits information and that the teachers’ “legitimate expectation of privacy” exempts the records from disclosure.
“A teacher’s absence from school is not private – students, parents, colleagues and supervisors will know the teacher is not present,” Phillips wrote. “Further, whether a teacher is absent from work due to an illness or otherwise does not reflect poorly upon him or her.”
The CFOIC, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association, The Denver Post and the Associated Press submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The school district should be allowed to release the teachers’ names, the consortium contended, “because the public has a compelling interest in being able to monitor the performance (or, as here, non-performance) of public employees’ public functions and the expenditure of public funds.”
The names of some teachers who called in sick last fall already have been released. Conifer High teachers’ names were provided in September to parent and teacher Kyle Walpole after he submitted a CORA request. The Jeffco school district denied Walpole’s request at first, but reversed its decision after a CFOIC volunteer attorney argued on Walpole’s behalf for the release of the records.
After Conifer High teachers called in sick, a news release posted on Facebook said they had taken collective action “to raise community awareness” of the Jeffco school board’s “unilateral decision making model,” in particular expressing concerns about proposed changes to the district’s Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum and a teacher compensation proposal.
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