|Office of the Attorney General - State of Texas
October 19, 2000
Ms. Sara Shiplet Waitt
Dear Ms. Waitt:
You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under the Public Information Act, chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 140314.
The Texas Department of Insurance (the "department") received a request for copies of all complaints filed against two named insurance companies and a named claims adjuster. The department states that it will release some of the requested information to the requestor. You claim that portions of the remaining information are excepted from disclosure under section 552.101 of the Government Code. We have considered the exception you claim and reviewed the submitted representative sample of the information requested.(1)
Section 552.101 excepts from disclosure "information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision." This section encompasses information protected by other statutes. You raise section 402.083(a) of the Labor Code, which reads as follows:
(a) Information in or derived from a claim file regarding an employee is confidential and may not be disclosed by the commission except as provided by this subtitle.
This provision makes confidential information in the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission's (the "commission") files. Section 402.086(a) of the Labor Code, which essentially transfers this confidentiality to information other parties obtain from the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, reads as follows:
(a) Information relating to a claim that is confidential under this subtitle remains confidential when released to any person, except when used in court for the purposes of an appeal.
In Open Records Decision No. 533 (1989), our office determined that the predecessor to section 402.083 protects information received from the Industrial Accident Board (now the commission), but does not protect information possessed by a governmental entity that the entity has not received from the commission. The department states that the information responsive to this request consists of "complaints received by [the department] regarding workers' compensation issues" that are subsequently forwarded to the commission. Based on your representation, we do not believe such information is protected by section 402.083 of the Labor Code as the department did not receive the information from the commission. Therefore, you may not withhold this information under section 402.083(a) of the Labor Code.
The department also raises article 5.58(d) of the Insurance Code. Subsection (c) of the article deals with the content of "Detailed Claim Information Reports" and specifies information that must be submitted on each workers compensation claim. Subsection (d) makes confidential "a social security number or any other information collected under Subsection (c) of this article which would disclose the identity of any claimant." However, we do not agree that the responsive documents constitute "Detailed Claim Information Reports" for the purposes of article 5.58. Therefore, article 5.58(d) does not make the information you have marked confidential.
Social security numbers may be withheld in some circumstances under section 552.101 of the Government Code. A social security number or "related record" may be excepted from disclosure under section 552.101 in conjunction with the 1990 amendments to the federal Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(c)(2)(C)(viii)(I). See Open Records Decision No. 622 (1994). These amendments make confidential social security numbers and related records that are obtained and maintained by a state agency or political subdivision of the state pursuant to any provision of law enacted on or after October 1, 1990. See id. We have no basis for concluding that any of the social security numbers in the file are confidential under section 405(c)(2)(C)(viii)(I), and therefore excepted from public disclosure under section 552.101 of the Act on the basis of that federal provision. We caution, however, that section 552.352 imposes criminal penalties for the release of confidential information. Prior to releasing any social security number information, you should ensure that no such information was obtained or is maintained by the department pursuant to any provision of law, enacted on or after October 1, 1990.
However, section 552.101 also encompasses common law privacy and excepts from disclosure private facts about an individual. Industrial Found. v. Texas Indus. Accident Bd., 540 S.W.2d 668 (Tex. 1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 931 (1977). Therefore, information must be withheld from the public when (1) it is highly intimate and embarrassing such that its release would be highly objectionable to a person of ordinary sensibilities, and (2) there is no legitimate public interest in its disclosure. Id. at 685; Open Records Decision No. 611 at 1 (1992). This office has found that some kinds of medical information or information indicating disabilities or specific illnesses are excepted from required public disclosure under common law privacy. See Open Records Decision Nos. 470 (1987) (illness from severe emotional and job-related stress), 455 (1987) (prescription drugs, illnesses, operations, and physical handicaps). After reviewing the submitted documents, we find that the privacy rights of one of the claimants would be implicated by the release of her identity. We have marked the document from which you must withhold the complainant's identifying information. The remaining responsive information must be released to the requestor.
This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and limited to the facts as presented to us; therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.
This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code § 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. § 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. § 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. § 552.321(a).
If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. § 552.3215(e).
If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. § 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408,411 (Tex. App.-Austin 1992, no writ).
Please remember that under the Act the release of information triggers certain procedures for costs and charges to the requestor. If records are released in compliance with this ruling, be sure that all charges for the information are at or below the legal amounts. Questions or complaints about over-charging must be directed to the General Services Commission at 512/475-2497.
If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.
Ref: ID# 140314
Encl: Marked documents
cc: Ms. Richard G. Danner, Jr.
1. In reaching our conclusion here, we assume that the "representative sample" of records submitted to this office is truly representative of the requested records as a whole. See Open Records Decision Nos. 499 (1988), 497 (1988). This open records letter does not reach, and therefore does not authorize the withholding of, any other requested records to the extent that those records contain substantially different types of information than that submitted to this office.
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