School district, TV station take home partial wins in public records dispute over football coach’s suspension

A central Indiana school district that placed a football coach on unpaid leave failed to provide a local TV station with a sufficient factual basis for that discipline, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a partial reversal. However, the high court upheld the ruling that the school district does not have to provide the TV station with the coach’s underlying personnel files.

The case of WTHR-TV v. Hamilton Southeastern Schools and Rick Wimmer, 21S-MI-345, centers on Rick Wimmer, a teacher and head football coach at Fishers High School in Hamilton Southeastern Schools. Wimmer was placed on paid leave in September 2016 following an incident with a student during class. The discipline was later converted to unpaid leave.

The situation made the news on WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, which filed a formal public records request for Wimmer’s personnel file under Indiana Code § 5-14-3-4(b)(8). That statute requires public agencies to disclose three types of information from personnel files: basic identifying information, information about formal charges and the “factual basis” for certain types of final discipline.

HSE responded with “a compilation of information in an email” but did not provide copies of the underlying personnel files. In its compilation, the school district disclosed that Wimmer was suspended for five days without pay in December 2016 “due to not implementing instructions for classroom management strategies consistent with Board of School Trustees Policy G02.06.”

Unsatisfied, WTHR sued the school district for copies of disclosable records and data comprising the factual basis for the discipline, as well as for the disclosure of the factual basis itself. The Hamilton Circuit Court ruled in HSE’s favor, finding that the TV station was not entitled to the underlying documents and that HSE had provided a sufficient factual basis.

The Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, finding that because I.C. 5-14-3-4(b)(8) identifies categories of information, the school district only had to provide the relevant information, not the underlying documents. Additionally, HSE’s factual basis was sufficient because, according to the COA, it “explained the type of disciplinary action that was taken, the date the discipline was imposed, the length of the discipline, and why the discipline was issued … .”

In a Thursday opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s finding regarding the compiled information emailed to WTHR, but reversed on the issue of the factual basis.

Agreeing with the lower courts’ interpretation of I.C. 5-14-3-4(b)(8), Justice Mark Massa wrote for the unanimous Supreme Court that under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, “specific information can be conveyed without providing the underlying documents.”

“The Act constantly references ‘information’ in personnel files, not documents,” Massa wrote. “The personnel file exception means that although public agencies generally do not have to disclose public employee personnel files, they must disclose certain categories of information found in those files.”

“Of course, the three categories of required information are exceptions to the general personnel file exception,” Massa continued, citing Unincorporated Operating Div. of Ind. Newspapers, Inc. v. Trs. Of Ind. Univ., 787 N.E.2d 893, 915 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003), trans. denied. “Thus, the information in those three categories is subject to Indiana Code section 5-14-3-3(a), which allows any person to ‘inspect and copy the public records of any public agency.’ This means that public agencies must allow the inspection and copying of public records that contain the required personnel file information.

“… When an agency compiles the required information into a new document, it creates a public record. If it allows a requester to inspect and copy that record, it has satisfied its obligations. Agencies must only turn over public records that retain the required information.”

Massa, a former journalist, added the act does not prohibit public agencies from turning over underlying documents, noting there are “strong public policy arguments” for doing. However, he said, “the legislature has only required agencies to turn over public records that contain certain types of personnel file information.”

But while HSE sufficiently conveyed the first two types of information required under I.C. 5-14-3-4(b)(8), the justices determined it failed to convey the third, a sufficient “factual basis” for Wimmer’s discipline.

The high court adopted the COA’s definition of “factual basis” as being a “fact-based account of what led to the discipline,” then determined that definition was not met in the instant case. What constitutes a factual basis will be a case-by-case determination, Massa said, but a public agency cannot satisfy that definition by making “bald conclusions.”

“HSE’s most comprehensive ‘factual basis’ was that ‘Mr. Wimmer was suspended for five days without pay on December 14, 2016 due to not implementing instructions for classroom management strategies consistent with Board of School Trustees Policy G02.06,” Massa wrote for the court. “It provides no facts about Wimmer’s actions that led to his suspension.

“… HSE’s ‘factual basis’ was merely a bald conclusion that Wimmer violated a broad policy,” the justice concluded. “It did not contain facts about Wimmer’s actions that would allow a reasonable person to understand why he was suspended. HSE’s ‘factual basis’ was insufficient.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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