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Jefferson County Education Association v. Jefferson County School District R-1

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Division A

January 14, 2016

Jefferson County Education Association, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Jefferson County School District R-1 and Lisa Pinto, in her official capacity as Custodian of Records, Defendants-Appellees.

Jefferson County District Court No. 15CV30320 Honorable Christie B. Phillips, Judge

Sharyn E. Dreyer, Kris A. Gomez, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Caplan and Earnest LLC, William J. Kowalski, W. Stuart Stuller, Boulder, Colorado, for Defendants-Appellees.

Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, L.L.P., Thomas B. Kelly, Steven D. Zansberg, Christopher P. Beall, Denver, Colorado, for Amicus Curiae Associated Press, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and the Denver Post.

OPINION

BERNARD, JUDGE.

¶ 1 Is a written record that shows the name of a teacher who requested sick leave on a specific date part of the teacher's personnel file for purposes of the Colorado Open Records Act, sections 24-72-200.1 to -206, C.R.S. 2015? This statutory scheme, which we commonly refer to as CORA, requires the custodian of a personnel file to preserve the confidentiality of its contents. But, if the record is not part of a teacher's personnel file, and no other statute protects it from disclosure, then CORA requires the custodian to disclose the record upon request.

¶ 2 The plaintiff, a teacher's union - the Jefferson County Education Association - filed a motion under C.R.C.P. 106(a)(2) to enjoin the defendants, a school district - Jefferson County School District No. R-1 - and its records custodian - Lisa Pinto - from releasing these kinds of records to a Jefferson County resident. The trial court denied the motion.

¶ 3 We conclude that a record that documents a teacher's request for sick leave is not part of the teacher's personnel file. CORA requires the custodian of such a record to disclose it upon request. We therefore affirm the trial court's order.

I. Background

¶ 4 Some residents in Jefferson County alleged that, in September 2014, teachers at four high schools in the Jefferson County School District participated in "sick outs" to protest specific proposals that the school board had discussed. In each instance, whatever the reason for the teachers' absences, the affected high school closed for the day.

¶ 5 In February 2015, a Jefferson County resident asked for "all records showing the names of teachers who reported in sick at" each high school on the relevant dates. She made the request under CORA.

¶ 6 The school district and the records custodian decided that they would release the records to the resident. The teachers' union did not want them to do so, so it filed a motion in the trial court under C.R.C.P. 106(a)(2). The motion asked the court to compel the school district and the custodian to deny the resident's CORA request.

¶ 7 During a hearing on the motion, the school district stated that there were four documents, or one for each high school, that were "responsive to [the resident's] request." Each document bore (1) a particular school's name; and (2) a list of the last names and the initials of the first names of "staff members" from the school who had taken sick leave on the "dates specified" in the resident's CORA request. (The teachers' union is the only group opposing the decision of the school district and the custodian to release the records; no other staff members have made a similar request. Our opinion therefore focuses only on the contentions made by the teachers' union on behalf of teachers.)

¶ 8 The trial court denied the motion, but it granted a short stay of its judgment pending appeal. We extended the stay, and we expedited the appeal.

II. Analysis

¶ 9 The teachers' union asked the trial court for relief in the nature of mandamus. It contended that CORA imposed a duty on the school district and the records custodian to deny the resident's request for the records because they were part of the teachers' personnel files. See § 24-72-204(3)(a)(II), C.R.S. 2015. We disagree.

A. Legal Principles

¶ 10 Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy that a court may use to compel performance of a duty that the law requires. See State v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 897 P.2d 788, 791 (Colo. 1995); Denver Classroom Teachers Ass'n v. City & Cty. of Denver Sch. Dist. No. 1, 2015 COA 71, ¶ 18. A court will grant a request for mandamus only if (1) the plaintiff has a clear right to the relief sought; (2) the defendant has a clear duty to perform the act requested; and (3) there is no other available remedy. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Cty. Rd. Users Ass'n, 11 P.3d 432, 437 (Colo. 2000).

¶ 11 The focus of the dispute in this case is on the second factor: Do the school district and the records custodian have a "clear duty" to do what the teachers' union wants, which is to deny the resident's request for the records? We conclude that they do not have such a duty. Instead, CORA requires them to disclose the records.

¶ 12 We reach this conclusion by interpreting subsection (4.5) in section 24-72-202, C.R.S. 2015, of CORA. Subsection (4.5) defines the phrase "personnel files" this way:

"Personnel files" means and includes home addresses, telephone numbers, financial information, and other information maintained because of the employer-employee relationship . . . . "Personnel files" does not include applications of past or current employees, employment agreements, any amount paid or benefit provided incident to termination of employment, performance ratings, final sabbatical reports . . . or any compensation, including expense allowances and benefits, paid to employees by the state, its agencies, institutions, or political subdivisions.

¶ 13 Statutory interpretation is a question of law that we review de novo. Argus Real Estate, Inc. v. E–470 Pub. Highway Auth., 109 P.3d 604, 608 (Colo. 2005); Gleason v. Judicial Watch, Inc., 2012 COA 76, ¶ 14.

¶ 14 We begin our analysis by recognizing a general rule. Section 24-72-203(1)(a), C.R.S. 2015, states that "[a]ll public records shall be open for inspection by any person at reasonable times, except as provided in this part 2 or as otherwise provided by law . . . ." In other words, CORA "allows access to all public records not specifically exempted by law." Denver Pub. Co. v. Univ. of Colo., 812 P.2d 682, 683 (Colo.App. 1990). CORA's clear language creates a strong presumption in favor of disclosing records. Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers Local 68 v. Denver Metro. Major League Baseball Stadium Dist., 880 P.2d 160, 165, 167 (Colo.App. 1994). This strong ...


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