Caldwell resident wins public records lawsuit against Middleton School District

From the Idaho Press


MIDDLETON — An Idaho district judge has ordered the Middleton School District to turn over records to a Caldwell man, who sued the district in August over its denial of his public records requests.

The plaintiff, Ray Moore, filed five requests earlier this year under the Idaho Public Records Act with the Middleton School District, which were either denied, heavily redacted or subject to fees exceeding $3,000.

Moore sued the district — the only recourse in Idaho law for a public records denial. Third District Judge Thomas Whitney on Oct. 7 ruled that the school district had to give Moore unredacted copies of the records by Oct. 25.

Middleton School District Superintendent Sherawn Reberry, in a statement to the Idaho Press Monday, said the district is complying with the ruling and “will be working diligently over the coming months” to identify roles and responsibilities in the district office and train on the proper handling of records requests.

“We intend to be fully transparent to the extent of the law in the future,” said Reberry, who joined the district in July.

Whitney’s ruling comes as a separate public records lawsuit, between the Idaho Press Club and Ada County, is ongoing. The Press Club is suing the county over records that were heavily redacted or denied.

Moore, who represented himself in the case against the school district, said the process made him “incredibly concerned,” because even with knowledge of public records law, he found it difficult and time-consuming. If he’d used legal counsel, he estimates the lawsuit would have cost him $5,000 to $6,000.

Moore was part of a recall effort against school board members earlier this year, sparked after the board did not renew the high school principal’s contract. He was requesting documents to learn more about: The district’s decision not to renew the principal’s contract; allegations against trustee Marianne Blackwell; staff correspondence about a school board meeting agenda; and a legal agreement between the district and the law firm Anderson, Julian and Hull.

Whitney established that the records Moore requested “are public records as defined by Idaho law.”

“In this case,” Whitney wrote, “the district has not met its burden of demonstrating that any of the records requested fall under the narrow statutory exemptions” in the public records law.

One of Moore’s requests, made on May 15, asked for any notes sent to or received by the trustees and some district staff supporting Benjamin Merrill, then the Middleton High School principal, over the last six months. The district told him it would take “at least 80 man hours at a cost of $38 per hour” to complete the request. Moore said he was unable to pay that amount.

Whitney ruled there was “no evidence” proving fulfilling the request would take multiple hours of labor.

Another one of Moore’s requests, also made on May 15, initially asked for all correspondence, including text messages, from trustees and district staff regarding the topics on a school board meeting agenda for May 13, 2019.

The district’s response said there were too many people in “district staff” to meet that request. Moore then limited the request to nine board members and district staffers; however, he said he did not hear back from the district about it.

“The actions by the district, were they deliberate?” Whitney said in his ruling. “Yes, in most of these cases, they were deliberate. Particularly as to the failure to respond to the request which Mr. Moore intentionally narrowed.”

Reberry, in her statement, said her administrative team is “new and had very limited involvement with this lawsuit.” She was appointed superintendent in July.

“It is the district’s intent to fully comply with the court’s ruling,” she said, “and our work to supply Mr. Moore with the requested documents is already under way.”

Becky Worley, the district’s custodian of records at the time of Moore’s request, no longer works for the district, Reberry confirmed. She did not provide details of Worley’s departure.

Blackwell and two other trustees survived the recall election in August.

Moore requested the following records:

LAWYER LETTER: Moore requested a March 28 letter from lawyer Kenneth Mallea, containing allegations that Blackwell had shown prejudice against someone in the district. The details of the issue between Blackwell and Mallea’s client are redacted from court documents. The letter also contained an affidavit, which Moore requested.

Worley sent a response denying the request, saying it was “exempt from public records because it is part of personnel file” of a trustee, according to court documents and emails between Worley and Moore. The denial said Moore would have to obtain permission from Blackwell to get the records because they were in her personnel file.

Moore then emailed Blackwell, who gave permission for him to see the letter. Moore sent the authorization to the district.

Worley then told Moore, according to exhibits in court documents, she did not have the records and was requesting them from district counsel Scott Marotz, with Anderson, Julian and Hull.

On May 1, Marotz provided Moore with redacted copies of the affidavit and the letter, saying the redactions came because the letter and attachments are “exempt from disclosure under the Open Records Act.” Marotz told Moore in an email that the information he requested was also included in another employee’s personnel file, and therefore exempt.

Most personnel information of public employees isn’t subject to disclosure, other than some exceptions such as pay and employment history and status, as outlined in the Public Records Act (section 74-106).

However, another section of Idaho Code, in the Education chapter, applies only to school district employees. This section says a school district employee’s personnel file is confidential, and an employee must be given notice if anything is added to the file, so they have an opportunity to rebut it (section 33-518).

PERSONNEL FILE NOTICES: Moore told the Idaho Press he didn’t believe the information he request was in another personnel file. So, on May 15, he asked for the notice given to the person who had the affidavit in their personnel file and every notice given in 2018 and 2019 to district employees that a complaint was being added to their personnel file.

The district denied that request, saying personnel records were exempt from public records law. Marotz later rephrased the denial, saying the request was “overly broad and burdensome.”

CORRESPONDENCE: Also on May 15, Moore requested all correspondence between trustees and district staff regarding the topics on a meeting agenda. He later limited the request to nine board members and district staff members, understanding his request was “overly broad.”

Whitney ruled that Moore “made it easier for the government to respond, and the district did not respond.”

Moore then requested any notes or writings sent to trustees and district representatives from anyone affiliated with the Middleton School District to support Merrill over the last six months.

Worley sent a response denying these requests, citing that the information was in personnel records.

On May 29, Marotz responded to all three May 15 requests and said they were denied because they were overly broad and would cost a significant amount to fulfill. Marotz also advised Moore could get an estimate of the costs.

LEGAL AGREEMENT: Moore’s last request, on June 25, was for the “most recent legal services agreement” between the district and Anderson, Julian and Hull. The district, through Marotz, told Moore via email that the record did not exist.

However, in the affidavit Moore requested and received with redactions, Marotz sent an email to the Canyon County prosecutor and attached the legal services agreement between the Middleton School District and Anderson, Julian and Hull, proving a legal services agreement existed in 2016-17.

Marotz declined to comment on this story.

From the Idaho Press

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