Agencies must provide a “factual basis” for employee discipline

In a landmark ruling that will increase government transparency in Indiana, the state Supreme Court ruled last week that agencies must provide specific facts as to why a public employee is being suspended, fired or otherwise disciplined.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision means that school districts, police departments and other state public agencies can no longer get away with making vague assertions when responding to requests for employee records. whose fault resulted in a sanction. Instead, Indiana’s highest court found that government officials “must provide certain facts about the employee’s actions.”

The decision is the culmination of a successful three-and-a-half-year legal battle waged by lawyers for the Committee of Reporters on behalf of Indiana’s WTHR-TV, which sued a local school district for information about the suspension of a secondary school teacher and football coach. .

“This isn’t just a win for WTHR,” Adam Marshall, senior counsel for the reporters’ committee, told WTHR after the ruling. “This is a victory for everyone who lives in the state of Indiana.”

The origins of the legal dispute date back to 2017. That’s when WTHR investigative reporter Bob Segall began requesting documents under Indiana’s Public Records Access Act. , which would explain why the Hamilton Southeast School District suspended Rick Wimmer, then head of football. coach at Fishers High School. Segall searched the records as part of the station’s investigation into incidents of suspension, administrative leave, relocation or resignation of Indiana public school teachers and staff with little or no information provided to publicly explain the changes.

Although school officials provided information in response to Segall’s requests, they repeatedly refused to release details establishing the basis for the suspension beyond vague conclusive statements, such as Wimmer being punished for “failing to implement instructions for classroom management strategies” and for not following school board policy.

WTHR, represented by attorneys for the Committee of Reporters and Mike Wilkins of Broyles Kight & Ricafort, PC, ultimately sued the school district in 2018. The lawsuit argued that the district violated state public records law. by failing to provide the “factual basis” for Wimmer’s suspension. , a mandate included in the State Public Records Act.

A lower court ruled in favor of the district, finding that school officials had provided enough information to satisfy the “factual basis” requirement. An appeals court then upheld the trial court’s decision before WTHR asked the Indiana Supreme Court to hear the case.

The five Supreme Court justices disagreed with the lower courts’ finding that the school district had sufficiently explained the reason for the football coach’s suspension. In the opinion of the Supreme Court, Justice Mark Massa wrote that while agencies are not required to explain the reason for an employee’s punishment in “intricate detail”, they are still required to “provide certain facts about the actions of the employee”.

But in this case, the Supreme Court concluded: “No reasonable person could read the HSE statement and policy and understand why the HSE disciplined Wimmer. The HSE’s “factual basis” was simply a simple finding that Wimmer had violated a general policy. It did not contain facts about Wimmer’s actions that would allow a reasonable person to understand why he was suspended.

The case now returns to the Magistrate Court for retrial.

Photo credit: Screenshot from WTHR report

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