Advisory Opinions from the Data Practices Office (DPO) of the Minnesota Department of Administration are not legally binding, but compliance with an Advisory Opinion protects a public entity from any damages or penalties in the event an act is challenged in court. Therefore, it is generally advisable to follow the Department’s advice. The following interesting Advisory Opinions from the past year provide some useful guidance for school districts to be aware of.
Data Maintained for Multiple Purposes:
In Advisory Opinion 21-002, a member of the public submitted a data request to a school district for a recording of the public comments portion of a school board meeting. During that meeting, community members had made allegations against district employees; therefore, the school district considered the recordings private personnel data about those employees.
The DPO discussed two 2016 Minnesota Supreme Court opinions relating to the classification of data maintained for multiple purposes or in multiple locations. The DPO concluded that it appeared the recording was maintained as a record of an open meeting, and that records of open meetings, if created, are public. “As a result, if the District continued to maintain the recording as a record of the open meeting at the time of [the] data request, rather than exclusively for personnel purposes, the recording was still being maintained as a record of the meeting and would be public.”
But the DPO also noted that if the district placed the recording in an employee’s personnel file or maintained it exclusively for personnel purposes, then the data would be personnel data under Minn. Stat. § 13.43. And if multiple copies of the recording were maintained for different purposes, the separate copies could have different classifications.
This purpose-based analysis can be confusing, and districts should consult with legal counsel if there is any uncertainty about the proper classification of data. School districts should be mindful that recordings of board meetings, if maintained for purposes of keeping a record of the meeting, will generally be considered public data, even if employee information is discussed.
Sharing Private Data with Other Departments or Entities:
In Advisory Opinion 20-005, in response to a request from the Minnesota Department of Education, the DPO reviewed options for sharing private or confidential data with other units within an entity, or with other governmental entities such as a county. First, the Commissioner emphasized that individuals within a government entity may access private or confidential data when their work assignment reasonably requires access to it, even when those individuals work within different units or programs of the same entity.
Second, the DPO provided an overview of several statutes that contain legal authority for school districts to share private data with a county, provided that the circumstances of each provision are met. The Opinion rejected the application of a state administrative rule as sufficient to provide sharing authority, noting that the authority to share data between government agencies must be in state statute or federal law.
While this Advisory Opinion does not break any substantial new ground, it does serve as a helpful overview and reinforcement of relevant statutory options that are available for data sharing with other entities.
Email Contact Lists:
In Advisory Opinion 20-003, a member of the public, while inspecting an email provided in response to a data request, noticed an attachment that he had not been provided and requested to inspect the attachment. The school district advised him that the attachment contained an employee’s email contact list and that the contact list was private personnel data.
The DPO emphasized that the Data Practices Act classifies individual data elements, not entire documents. Therefore, a list of contacts could contain public data and not-public data, depending on the specific contacts. The DPO concluded that if the contacts are maintained in order to conduct public business or as part of the employee’s job duties, they likely are not private data about the employee. If, however, certain contacts would reveal private data about the employee, such as personal or family member contact information, those contacts could be redacted as private personnel data, or potentially as personal, non-government data. In light of this guidance, school districts should carefully review data before withholding entire documents or files to ensure that the individual elements being withheld actually constitute private data.
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.
Adam Wattenbarger is an education law attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9306 or http://www.kennedy-graven.com.
© Adam C. Wattenbarger (2021). Used by permission.