Appeals court upholds decision that teachers’ sick-leave records are public information

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By Gabrielle Porter

A Jeffco judge’s decision that teachers’ sick-leave records are public information and not confidential personnel information was upheld in a Jan. 14 state Court of Appeals decision.

Judges Steve Bernard, Robert Hawthorne and Anthony Navarro upheld a 2015 decision against the Jefferson County Education Association, which sought to prevent the Jeffco school district from releasing the names of teachers who were absent from work during “sick-outs” at several schools in late 2014. More than one Jeffco resident had requested the information.

The union argued in district court last year that disclosing sick-leave records could indirectly reveal private health information about teachers.

Attorneys for Jeffco Public Schools argued that sick-leave records don’t meet the definition of personnel records, and that the Colorado Open Records Act required release of the information.

District Judge Christie Phillips ruled last June that sick-leave information isn’t private medical or personnel information, and that teachers shouldn’t expect a right to privacy concerning sick days.

Bernard, Hawthorne and Navarro agreed in their joint decision.

“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?” they wrote. “We conclude that they do not have such a duty.”

Case background

The JCEA’s lawsuit stemmed from the school district’s high-profile political turmoil. Following several controversial decisions from the school board’s then-conservative majority, teachers from several schools called in sick en masse on two days in September 2014. As a result, Conifer and Standley Lake high schools closed Sept. 19, while Golden and Jefferson high schools closed Sept. 29.

Conifer teachers said in a Facebook release they were trying to raise awareness about the school board’s later-abandoned plan to review the Advanced Placement history curriculum. Teachers had also been protesting a pay-for-performance plan implemented by the board.

The school district later received two open-records requests from Jeffco residents for the names of teachers absent on the sick-out days, one of which was granted.

In February, however, the union sued the school district to keep the names private.

JCEA may ask for another hearing

Even though the records have been released once before, the school district is now forbidden from releasing the names of the teachers who were absent during the sick-outs until the JCEA has exhausted all its legal options.

The JCEA has until Feb. 26 to either ask for a rehearing from the Court of Appeals or appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, said Jon Sarché, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch. If the union seeks a second Court of Appeals hearing, the court can decide to grant it another hearing, deny the request, or modify its original decision. If the union appeals the decision to the state Supreme Court, the court still can choose to not grant a hearing, Sarché said.

The state Supreme Court’s decision is final in any case that doesn’t involve federal issues, Sarché said.

JCEA attorney Kris Gomez said union leaders are still weighing their options.

Contact Gabrielle Porter at gabrielle@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1042.