Missoula County Public Schools v. Bitterroot Star

Missoula County Public Schools v. Bitterroot Star, 2015 MT 95 (March 31, 2015) (McGrath, C.J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court properly held that a school district employee did not have a protectable privacy interest in investigatory documents, and that any privacy interest she had was outweighed by her position of public trust.

Short Answer: Yes.

Affirmed

Facts: Valerie Addis was the supervisor of food services for Missoula County Public School. During her employment in 2010, the school investigated Addis as to whether she had engaged in fraudulent or illegal financial transactions. Following the investigation, the school district instituted disciplinary action. Addis left the school district and filed a wrongful discharge suit.

The Ravalli County Commission then appointed Addis to serve as the county treasurer. It eventually investigated irregularities in her performance and imposed sanctions against her.

In January 2014, the Bitterroot Star and Missoula Independent weekly newspapers and KECI TV asked the school district to release documents related to Addis’s termination as food services director, and the investigation of fraudulent activity. The school district notified Addis, who asserted a privacy interest in the documents. The school district released Addis’s resignation letter and separation agreement, then filed for in camera review and a declaratory ruling on whether the remaining documents should be released. The media outlets counterclaimed, alleging the school district had violated their rights by not immediately releasing the documents.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The media outlets moved for summary judgment. Addis appeared and opposed the documents’ release. The district court reviewed the documents and concluded Addis had a right of privacy in some, but held that six documents should be released. It granted summary judgment to the school district on the media outlets’ counterclaim. Addis appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: There is no blanket exemption from the right to know for documents simply because they are contained in a personnel file. The Court affirms the district court’s decision to review the disputed documents, and balance the need for individual privacy against the merits of public disclosure for each document. The court properly considered whether Addis had a subjective or actual expectation of privacy, and whether society should recognize that expectation as reasonable. It also properly found Addis’ position was one of public trust, as she was responsible for spending public money, and that she had no protectable privacy interest in records pertaining to the misuse of public money and public facilities, and careless management practices.