|Office of the Attorney General - State of Texas
December 12, 2000
Mr. John S. Schneider, Jr.
Dear Mr. Schneider:
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# 142189.
The City of Pasadena (the "city") received two requests for information regarding certain city employees. One of the requestors provided comment to this office which included a copy of his request. The requestor asks for a copy of each document signed by each employee who authorized the city to make deductions from their salaries or to forward funds to the Pasadena Police Officers Association or the Texas Municipal Police Association. You claim that the requested information is excepted from disclosure under section 552.102 of the Government Code.
Pursuant to section 552.301(e), a governmental body is required to submit to this office within fifteen business days of receiving an open records request (1) general written comments stating the reasons why the stated exceptions apply that would allow the information to be withheld, (2) a copy of the written request for information, (3) a signed statement or sufficient evidence showing the date the governmental body received the written request, and (4) a copy of the specific information requested or representative samples, labeled to indicate which exceptions apply to which parts of the documents. You did not, however, submit to this office a copy of either of the written requests for information.
Pursuant to section 552.302 of the Government Code, a governmental body's failure to submit to this office the information required in section 552.301(e) results in the legal presumption that the information is public and must be released. Information that is presumed public must be released unless a governmental body demonstrates a compelling reason to withhold the information to overcome this presumption. See Hancock v. State Bd. of Ins., 797 S.W.2d 379, 381-82 (Tex. App.--Austin 1990, no writ) (governmental body must make compelling demonstration to overcome presumption of openness pursuant to statutory predecessor to Gov't Code § 552.302); Open Records Decision No. 319 (1982). A compelling reason is demonstrated where information is made confidential by other law, or where third party interests are at issue. Open Record Decision No. 150 (1977). As section 552.102 protects confidential information, your argument under this section will be addressed and the representative sample of information which you have submitted will be reviewed.(1)
Section 552.102 excepts from disclosure "information in a personnel file, the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Gov't Code § 552.102(a). In Hubert v. Harte-Hanks Texas Newspapers, 652 S.W.2d 546 (Tex. App.--Austin 1983, writ ref'd n.r.e.), the court ruled that the test to be applied to information claimed to be protected under section 552.102 is the same as the test formulated by the Texas Supreme Court in Industrial Foundation for information claimed to be protected under the doctrine of common law privacy as incorporated by section 552.101 of the act. See Industrial Found. v. Texas Indus. Accident Bd., 540 S.W.2d 668, 683-85 (Tex. 1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 931 (1977). In Industrial Foundation, the Texas Supreme Court stated that information is excepted from disclosure if (1) the information contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts the release of which would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person, and (2) the information is not of legitimate concern to the public. Id. at 685.
Financial information concerning an individual is in some cases protected by a common law right of privacy. See Open Records Decision Nos. 545 (1990), 523 (1989). A previous opinion of this office states that "all financial information relating to an individual . . . ordinarily satisfies the first requirement of common law privacy, in that it constitutes highly intimate or embarrassing facts about the individual, such that its public disclosure would be highly objectionable to a person of ordinary sensibilities." Open Records Decision No. 373 at 3 (1983). However, the case of public employees presents special considerations. Information regarding a financial transaction between a person and a governmental body is a matter of legitimate public interest; thus, the second prong of the Industrial Foundation test is not met and the doctrine of common law privacy does not generally protect this information from disclosure. Open Records Decision No. 385 at 2 (1983). Examples of financial transactions considered to be between the person and the governmental body include: a donation to a public institution, Open Records Decision No. 590 (1991); a debt owed to a public hospital, Open Records Decision No. 385 (1983); and a public employee's participation in an insurance program funded wholly or partially by his employer. Open Records Decision No. 600 (1992).
However, a public employee's voluntary financial participation, such as in a voluntary investment program or deferred compensation plan that is not funded by the governmental body, is not considered a financial transaction between the individual and the governmental body. Open Records Decision No. 545 (1990). Because this type of information meets both prongs of the Industrial Foundation test, it is considered confidential and is excepted from public disclosure. Open Records Decision No. 545 (1990). Id.
Therefore, whether the responsive information is protected by the common law right of privacy depends on whether the deductions are voluntary or mandatory. The city relates that the request is for "information from payroll records of the city as to how certain employees spend their salaries." This implies that the deductions are voluntary. If so, the information must be withheld under section 552.102 of the Government Code. If the deductions are not voluntary, the information must be released.
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 Hadassah Schloss at 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.
Michael Jay Burns
Ref: ID# 142189
Encl: Submitted documents
cc: Ms. Tammy Hinojosa
Mr. Burt Springer
1. 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.