Thursday, May 12, 2011
Pension Data Held Not Exempt From Disclosure Requirements
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The names of public retirees and the amounts they receive in pension benefits are public records subject to disclosure, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Denying a petition by Sacramento County retirement officials, the court upheld a Sacramento Superior Court ruling in favor of the Sacramento Bee, which sought the information under the California Public Records Act. The Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System sought review of Judge Allen H. Sumner’s ruling over the objections of Sacramento supervisors, who unanimously supported disclosure of the data, the newspaper reported.
“Justice Elena Duarte said SCERS must turn over the names, positions, and benefit amounts for retirees, although it need not disclose ‘the members’ home or email addresses, telephone numbers or Social Security numbers.’”
Karl Olson, an attorney representing the newspaper, said in a story published on the Bee website that this was the first appeals court decision on the issue. Previously, trial courts in Sacramento and six other counties have ruled in favor of releasing information about public retirement plans.
The Bee contended it needed the information in order to report on such issues as “pension spiking,” or cashing out vacation time or working overtime in the last year of employment, thereby increasing the final compensation amount on which benefits are based; “double dipping,” where a member receives a salary and a pension at the same time; and “triple dipping,” where a member draws a salary, pension, and unemployment benefits in the same year, among other practices.
SCERS argued that the information was confidential under the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937, and would subject retirees to, as Duarte put it, “unwelcome attention, obloquy, and financial predation.” But that argument has to be addressed to the Legislature, not the courts, the justice said.
The court also rejected the retirement system’s argument that the newspaper was estopped from seeking the information because it had lost a 2005 suit seeking similar information from Sacramento County. The trial judge correctly declined to apply collateral estoppel, in view of a later California Supreme Court decision that reached a contrary interpretation, as well as the “public benefit” exception to the doctrine, Duarte said.
As for the merits, Duarte cited Proposition 59, which requires that the CPRA and similar laws be interpreted broadly and exemptions interpreted narrowly. The CERL, in granting confidentiality to “individual records of members,” does not reflect legislative intent to keep all benefit information private, the jurist concluded.
She noted that state pension benefit information is routinely available from CalPERS and said SCERS “has not offered any reason the Legislature would have for designating county employee pensions—and no other public pensions—confidential.” The more logical interpretation of the exemption, she reasoned, is that it “protects information provided by a member or on the member’s behalf to SCERS, not all information held by SCERS that pertains to or relates to the member” such as “the name, date of retirement, department retired from, last position held, years of service, base allowance, cost of living adjustment, total health allowance and monthly pension benefit of each retiree.”
The justice also rejected SCERS’ argument that disclosure should be blocked under the CPRA’s “catchall” exemption, which balances privacy interests against the public interest in disclosure. Duarte concluded that an employee’s right to financial privacy does not extend to a public pension, and that there was little other than speculation to support the claim that the information would be used to embarrass or abuse retirees.
The case is Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System v. Superior Court (Sacramento Bee) 11 S.O.S. 2477.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company