AP NEWS

Supreme Court: State employee birthdates are public record

October 24, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — A divided Washington state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that birthdates of state employees are public records that are subject to disclosure.

In a 5-4 ruling , the court said there was no statutory or constitutional allowance that would preclude the release of such information. The decision reversed a Court of Appeals ruling and reinstated a lower court ruling that denied a motion to permanently enjoin release of state employee names, birthdates, and email addresses.

The case stems from a 2016 request from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that had been seeking disclosure of records of union-represented employees, so it could contact them as part of its effort to reduce the size and influence of public-sector unions. Several unions sought to stop the release of the records.

Freedom Foundation executive vice president Brian Minnich said the ruling “upholds Washington’s strong tradition of open government.”

“The Public Records Act is a powerful tool that helps government watchdogs, the media and citizen activists monitor the actions of public officials and, if necessary, hold them accountable,” he said in a statement.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Debra Stephens, said that while justices appreciate concerns that come with disclosing birthdates along with employee names, they can’t expand the narrow exemptions of the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act “beyond the boundaries set by the legislature. Joining Stephens in the majority were Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst and Justices Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen and Mary Yu.

Stephens noted that while the birthdates of employees’ dependents have been explicitly exempted, the employees themselves have not. “Our precedent is clear and unwavering that this court cannot interpret the PRA to imply broad exemptions that have not been expressly delineated,” she wrote.

She also said birthdates are often important in matters of public concern, pointing to previous investigations by the Seattle Times that used birthdates of abusive high school coaches and teachers who moved to different districts, and another project that exposed government employees who drew pension and employment income simultaneously.

“These examples underscore that disclosure of birth dates often serves the public interest in transparency and oversight,” she wrote.

Ultimately, Stephens wrote, it’s up to the Legislature to modify or expand exemptions to the law. While the Legislature has failed to pass legislation exempting birthdate information in prior legislative sessions, WPEA President Kent Stanford called on the lawmakers to take action in light of the ruling.

“Public service employees already face low wages and harassment on the job,” he said in a statement. “It is unconscionable that they must also deal with increased risk of data breaches, doxing, and identity theft, just because they’ve answered the call to serve the people of Washington.”

The dissenting justices said the release of such information makes employees vulnerable to cybercriminals.

“In our age of technology, information is fuel. And personal information is collected and shared around the world_with good and bad actors alike,” Justice Charles Wiggins wrote.

Joining Wiggins in the dissent were Justices Susan Owens and Sheryl Gordon McCloud.

Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in a separate dissent: “Disturbing results will follow if this personal information is not protected by our state agencies.”

“Criminals need not hack the government’s servers to get personal information when all they need to do is submit a PRA request,” he said. “Their victims will be none the wiser.”