The Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Webster v. Hennepin Cnty., et al., 2018 WL 1832983 (Apr. 18, 2018), confirms that school districts cannot use “unreasonably burdensome” as an excuse for untimely or incomplete responses to data requests under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, and that districts should consider adopting comprehensive written policies for processing data requests.
In August 2015, Tony Webster submitted a government data request to Hennepin County for information pertaining to law enforcement’s use or planned implementation of mobile biometric technologies like fingerprint scanners, iris scanners, and facial recognition software. Webster’s request listed 14 separate items. None of these proved more contentious, however, than Item 14, in which Webster requested “[a]ny and all data since January 1, 2013, including emails, which reference biometric data or mobile biometric technology.” Item 14 also contained a series of keywords which Webster requested the County utilize to conduct the data retrieval through both manual individual and electronic storage means.
Three months after receiving his request, the County sent Webster a letter in response to Items 1 through 13. Answering Item 14, the County informed Webster that the request was “too burdensome with which to comply.” The County had apparently calculated that a search responsive to Item 14 would “tie up Hennepin County’s servers 24 hours a day for more than 15 months.” The County assured Webster that it would continue to work with him “to determine a reasonable limitation” to Item 14. Additional months followed, but the County never produced anything related to Item 14, even after Webster narrowed the scope of his request.
The facts borne out of Webster’s subsequent lawsuit confirmed that the County’s handling of Item 14 was less than ideal. Witness testimony made it apparent at the administrative hearing that the County employed no formal, standardized procedures for handling data requests. The County had designated an employee (i.e., a “responsible authority”) to oversee data requests. And while the responsible authority maintained contacts in various County departments and met weekly with her staff to review the status of pending data requests, the County could point to no internal protocols outlining how requests would be processed or the timelines for their completion.
The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (“Data Practices Act” or “Act”) governs the storage of government data and public access to that data. Government data is presumed to be public and available for inspection and copying, and under the Act, each government entity is required to “establish procedures . . . to insure that requests for government data are received and complied with in an appropriate and prompt manner.” Reviewing the administrative record, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the County’s procedures did not “insure” appropriate and prompt responses to requests for government data. According to the Court, the term “insure” means that a government entity’s “established procedures” should, when followed, result in an appropriate and prompt response to every data request. In other words, government entities get no mulligans when it comes to processing data requests.
Citing convoluted jurisdictional reasons for its refusal, the Court declined to address the related issue of whether a government entity could refuse to comply with an unduly burdensome request for data. While cognizant of the burdens government entities face when complying with expansive data requests, the court of appeals had rejected the County’s argument that the Data Practices Act should be interpreted to contain an unreasonable burden limitation. Amending the Act to incorporate such a limitation, said the court of appeals, was a policy decision better left to the legislature. Thus, for the time being, government entities must fulfill every lawfully submitted data request, regardless of scope.
Aside from rejecting the County’s arguments, the Supreme Court’s opinion offers little practical guidance to government entities responding to onerous requests for data. On the one hand, the Court acknowledges that the Data Practices Act does not obligate government entities to adopt written procedures for processing data requests. But on the other hand, the opinion seems to suggest that the Court treats a lack of written procedures as a presumptive violation of the Act, particularly if unwritten procedures do not result in a timely response.
Given the Court’s opinion in Webster, a school district may want to review its existing data request procedures. If no official protocols have been adopted, then districts should consider drafting and implementing a comprehensive data request policy detailing timelines and sequences for efficiently processing data requests and including requirements for timely communication with requesting parties. That communication may also include good-faith discussions to narrow broad or cumbersome requests.
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Alex D. Ivan is an education law attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Alex D. Ivan (2018). Used by permission.