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Local Governments and School Districts Blog

Cruel Intentions

Authored by Kevin J.T. Terry
Posted on May 13, 2014
Filed under Local Governments and School Districts

Last week, a Wisconsin Court of Appeals decided the case of Ardell v. Milwaukee Board of School Directors and Lynne A. Sobczak. The case is important to school districts and local governments alike because the outcome may change the way municipalities review and respond to public records requests.

Ardell sought disclosure of certain public records from the Milwaukee School District (MSD) relating to an MSD employee's personnel file. MSD initially allowed the disclosure of records, but then reconsidered, denying the request because "the public interest in protecting the safety and welfare of the employee clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure" - Ardell appealed this decision. The appeal was rooted in the general principal that a municipality may not consider the identity of the requester when making its decision.

The court recognized that the general principal is exactly that a municipality should not consider the identity of the requester when determining whether information should be released under the Wisconsin open records law. However, in this case, Ardell had a history of violence and harassment of the MSD employee, as well as a criminal history of domestic abuse against the employee. The court agreed that Ardell's purpose in requesting the employment records was not a legitimate one; rather, his intent was to continue to harass and intimidate the MSD employee. In sum, the facts of the case favored nondisclosure of the records, despite the presumption favoring public access to records, based upon concerns for the safety of the employee.

While this case may simply be an exception to the general rule of disclosure, municipalities can add this decision to its resources when responding to public records requests. It shows that municipalities do have tools to protect its employees from dangerous and harassing behavior in the form of records requests.