UPDATES & ANALYSIS

6.14

Iowa Supreme Court partially affirms trial court in mixed Cedar Rapids public records decision

by Rox Laird | June 14, 2024

Cedar Rapids resident Robert Teig asked Cedar Rapids city officials for records related to the hiring of a new city clerk and city attorney. When they mostly denied Teig’s requests, he filed suit naming six Cedar Rapids officials as defendants, which the Linn County District Court dismissed on summary judgment.

Teig made several arguments in an appeal of that ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court, including that job applications submitted to government bodies are not confidential under the Iowa Open Records Act; that municipalities cannot claim attorney-client privilege in the context of open records requests under the Act; that a government body may not assess search and retrieval fees under the Act; and that city unreasonably delayed fulfilling some of his records requests.

In a unanimous June 7 ruling written by Justice Dana Oxley affirming the district court in part and reversing in part, the Court addressed each of the issues Teig raised on appeal. The Court restated its earlier holdings on public records in agreeing with the City defendants on some issues while agreeing in part with Teig on others. And the Court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The Court agreed with the City defendants in part on the question of whether they properly denied Teig’s request for applications for the city clerk and city attorney positions. Retracing its holdings on job applications over the past four decades, the Court restated that job applications generally may be kept confidential, but in this case it recognized an exception for applications submitted by current government employees.

Applications from persons outside of government may be kept confidential under a provision of the Open Records Act, Iowa Code section 22.7(18), which makes an exception to the general rule that public records are open to the public. That exception is for communications “made to a government body or to any of its employees by identified persons outside of government,” where the government body receiving the communication “could reasonably believe that those persons would be discouraged from making them to that government body if they were available for general public examination.”

The city defendants argued that exception covers job applications from persons outside of government. And they argued employment applications are also shielded from disclosure under section 22.7(11), which exempts “[p]ersonal information in confidential personnel records of government bodies relating to identified or identifiable individuals who are officials, officers, or employees of the government bodies.”

The Court disagreed, saying the defendants’ reliance on two previous public records cases – City of Sioux City v. Sioux City Press Club (1988) and Clymer v. City of Cedar Rapids (1999) – was “misplaced.” Press Club exempted employment applications under a broad reading of the 22.7(18) without specifically addressing communications from persons outside of government, while Clymer dealt with records related to employee sick leave, not employment applications, the Court said.

Thus, it went on, “communications between current (but not prospective) employees and the governmental body that employs them — including applications for a new position with the employing body — are not made by persons ‘outside of government’ and therefore are not protected from disclosure under section 22.7(18).”

While that subsection is intended to protect a “broad category of useful incoming communications,” Oxley wrote, “we cannot ignore the general assembly’s additional limitation that the protection covers only those communications received from ‘persons outside of government’.”

Oxley added that while the threat of possible disclosure of an application may deter both internal and external candidates for a government job, “that is a policy consideration best left to the legislative branch.”

Still, she suggested, that could change: “It is not unreasonable for the general assembly to conclude that any deterrent effect chapter 22 may have on potential applicants will be felt most acutely by external applicants.”

On two remaining issues raised by Teig, the Court said communications from the city attorney are protected from disclosure by Iowa’s longstanding attorney-client privilege enshrined in state law and in caselaw. And, it held that the Open Records Act allows governments to recover reasonable fees for time spent in fulfilling requests for public records.

Finally, on Teig’s claim that the defendants unreasonably delayed producing several documents he requested, the Court said “reasonableness is often a fact question, and we conclude the district court — as the fact-finder — should address whether the delayed receipt of the billing records was an unreasonable delay in violation of chapter 22.”

 

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