Review of Court of Appeals Court
Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc. Lawrence R. Yetka, Justice. Peter S. Popovich, Chief Judge, dissenting.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yetka
1. Appellant had standing to oppose release of the investigative report detailing his misconduct as Chief of Police.
2. The city council's resolution to discharge appellant was not a "final disposition" under Minn. Stat. § 13.43 (1986) because appellant had exercised his right to a further hearing under the Veterans Preference Act.
3. The Annandale City Council meeting, at which appellant was discharged, was improperly closed under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.
4. When it is necessary to discuss data classified as private by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act at a meeting required to be open by the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, under Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 1b (1986), that portion of the meeting in which private data is discussed must be closed. The remainder of the meeting shall be open pursuant to the Open Meeting Law.
This case comes before us on appeal from a decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals which determined that the City of Annandale should make public, pursuant to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, an investigative report regarding the alleged misconduct of Annandale's chief of police. The report was the basis for discharge of the chief, who appealed his discharge under the Minnesota Veterans Preference Act and then resigned before a new hearing pursuant to that act could be held.
We reverse the court of appeals and hold that the investigative report must remain private.
The facts of this case are not in dispute. On October 23, 1986, William Ledwein, Chief of Police for the City of Annandale, Minnesota, was indicted by a Wright County grand jury for reckless discharge of a handgun. In November of 1986, the Annandale City Council retained John Scherer, an attorney with a private law firm, to conduct an investigation into other allegations of misconduct and incompetence against Ledwein. Mr. Scherer subsequently submitted an investigative report which was considered at a February 27, 1987 meeting of the city council. The city council closed this meeting, believing that the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act required employee disciplinary proceedings to be closed. Based on the investigative report and ensuing discussion, the city council passed a resolution discharging Ledwein as chief of police subject to Ledwein's right to a Veterans Preference Board hearing. Immediately after the city council meeting, the investigative reports were collected and were not made available to the public. On April 27, 1987, Ledwein, an honorably discharged veteran, requested a review of the city council's decision pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 197.46 of the Veterans Preference Act. A hearing was tentatively set for October of 1987.
The Annandale Advocate, (hereinafter " The Advocate "), a local newspaper, requested access to the investigative report discussed at the city council meeting. The Annandale City Council denied the request. On July 15, 1987, The Advocate moved the Wright County District Court for an order compelling release of the investigative report. On July 22, 1987, all parties agreed that a copy of the investigative report should be provided to the district court for its in camera review. On July 30, 1987, the district court ordered that the investigative report, except information which identified alleged victims of sexual misconduct and that protected by the city's attorney-client privilege, be released to the public. As a basis for this order, the district court ruled that the meeting at which the city council voted to terminate Ledwein was a "final disposition" of a disciplinary action under Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2 (1986) and, therefore, the investigative report was public data.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's ruling that the city council's meeting was the "final disposition" of a disciplinary action and the investigative report was thus public data. Annandale Advocate v. City of Annandale, 418 N.W.2d 522, 525 (Minn. App. 1988). At oral argument, the court of appeals raised the question of whether the investigative report could also have been made public under Minnesota's open meeting law. After further briefing by the parties on this issue, the court of appeals held that the Annandale City Council was without authority to close the meeting. Therefore, as the meeting was required to be open, the data in the investigative report was reclassified from private to public. Id. at 525-26.
On appeal, Ledwein is disputing the court of appeals' decision to release the investigative report. The City of Annandale, while a named party, does not dispute the release of the report and only seeks insulation from possible liability under the Data Practices Act. Amicus League of Minnesota Cities is also not disputing the report's release, but is concerned with the establishment of guidelines for its member cities. Amicus AFSCME argues that the appellate court opinion significantly erodes both procedural and substantive due process protection and privacy and liberty rights of public employees.
The issues raised on appeal are:
I. Does Ledwein have standing to appeal the release of the investigative report?
II. Was the city council's decision to terminate Ledwein a "final disposition" under Minn. Stat. § 13.43 (1986) when Ledwein was entitled to an additional hearing under the Veterans Preference Act?
III. Was the Annandale City Council meeting improperly closed?
IV. Does Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 1b (1986) provide an express exception to the Open Meeting Law?
The unusual procedural aspect of this case presents the threshold issue of standing. The record reveals that Ledwein was not, at anytime, a named party In The Advocate's action nor did he at anytime seek to intervene. Ledwein was, however, sent a copy of The Advocate's motion and other court papers and was allowed to appear and argue at the district court hearing. The district court ruled, though not a basis for its decision, that Ledwein lacked standing to oppose the release of the report. The court of appeals did not address the question of standing. Neither party appealed the issue to this court although The Advocate in its brief, does question whether Ledwein had standing to oppose the release of the report.
The question of standing, which can be raised by this court on its own motion, is essential to our exercise of jurisdiction. See, e.g., Izaak Walton League of Am. Endowment, Inc. v. State Dep't of Natural Resources, 312 Minn. 587, 589, 252 N.W.2d 852, 854 (1977). In Minnesota, a party whose legitimate interest is "injured in fact" has standing unless the legislature has indicated that the interest asserted is not to be protected. Snyder's Drug Stores, Inc. v. Minnesota State Bd. of Pharmacy, 301 Minn. 28, 32, 221 N.W.2d 162, 165 (1974).
We find that Ledwein has standing to oppose the release of the investigative report. Clearly, the release of the investigative report would cause an "injury in fact" to Ledwein's legitimate interests of reputation and privacy. Furthermore, Minn. Stat. § 13.08, subd. 4 (1986), which gives parties the right to bring an action to compel compliance with the Data Practices Act, demonstrates that the legislature has recognized a government employee's interest in preserving the confidentiality of personnel data. *fn1
The court of appeals found that the Annandale City Council meeting at which Ledwein was terminated was a "final disposition" of a disciplinary proceeding. Thus, the investigatory report, as supporting documentation, was public data. City of Annandale, 418 N.W.2d at 525. On appeal, Ledwein contends that the city council meeting could not have been a "final disposition" of this matter because he was entitled to an additional hearing under the Veterans Preference Act.
The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act mandates that all data maintained by a public body shall be accessible to the public unless expressly classified by law as non-public or private. Minn. Stat. § 13.03, subd. 1 (1986). Contrarily, the provision regarding personnel data, Minn. Stat. § 13.43 (1986), provides that all personnel data on public employees is private unless specifically listed otherwise. The applicable portions of Minn. Stat. § 13.43 read as follows:
Except for employees described in subdivision 5, the following personnel data on current and former employees, volunteers and independent contractors of a state agency, statewide system, or political subdivision and members of advisory boards or commissions is public * * * [including the final disposition of any disciplinary action and supporting documentation * * *.
All other personnel data is private data on individuals but may be released pursuant to a court order.
Id., subs. 2, 4 (emphasis added). Ledwein contends that, because he had the right to seek further review of the city council's decision before a Veterans Preference Board, the city council decision cannot be a final disposition. Minn. Stat. § 197.46 (1986) of the Veterans Preference Act provides that an honorably discharged veteran employed by a government body has the right to a hearing before the Veterans Preference Board after receipt of notice to discharge the veteran. A board authorized under the Veterans Preference Act may modify a disciplinary sanction and may fashion a remedy other than dismissal if the evidence presents extenuating circumstances. Matter of Schrader. 394 N.W.2d 796, 801-02 (Minn. 1986).
Despite Ledwein's exercise of his right to a Veterans Preference Board hearing, the court of appeals held that the Annandale City Council's resolution to discharge Ledwein was a "final disposition" because:
Review of the Government Data Practices Act indicates that Minn. Stat. § 13.43 applies only to the city council and not to the Veteran's Preference Board. The Veteran's Preference Board hearing in no way affects the finality of the city council's decision pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 13.43. We conclude that the city council's decision in these disciplinary proceedings was "final" for the purposes of the act.
City of Annandale, 418 N.W.2d at 525. In its use of the phrases "finality of the city council's decision" and "the city council's decision * * * was final for the purposes of the Act," the court of appeals appears to assume that "final disposition" is synonymous with "final decision." A review of case law and legal definitions of "final disposition" and "final decision" demonstrates that this assumption is incorrect.
Black's Law Dictionary defines "final decision" as:
One which leaves nothing open to further dispute and which sets at rest cause of action between parties. Judgment or decree which terminates action in court which renders it. One which settles rights of parties respecting the subject-matter of the suit and which concludes them until it is reversed or set aside."
Black's Law Dictionary 567 (5th ed. 1979). "Final disposition" is defined as: "Such a conclusive determination of the subject-matter that after the award, judgment, or decision is made nothing further remains to fix the rights and obligations of the parties, and no further controversy or litigation can arise thereon." Id. These definitions indicate that the phrase "final disposition" has a separate and different meaning than "final decision." Furthermore, while this court has not yet defined "final disposition," other courts have. In Ex parte Russell, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 664, 20 L. Ed. 632 (1871), the United States Supreme Court held that "final disposition" meant the final determination of a suit on appeal or in a court of claims. Id. at 669. The Florida Supreme Court has held that "final disposition" means either acquittal or ultimate disposition on remand. Florida Bar v. Craig, 238 So. 2d 78, 80 (Fla. 1970). See also Quarture v. Allegheny County, 141 Pa. Super. 356, 14 A.2d 575 (1940), stating that a final disposition is "such a conclusive determination of the subject-matter * * * that after the award is made nothing further remains to fix the rights and obligations of the parties, and no further controversy or litigation can arise thereon." Id. at 362, 14 A.2d at 578 citing Bouvier's Law Dictionary 414 (1934).
It is apparent from the legal dictionary and case law definitions that "final decision" refers to a last decision of a person or body on a matter while "final disposition" refers to the last and final determination of the matter itself. Clearly, the city council's resolution to terminate Ledwein was its final decision, but it was not a "final disposition" of his case because Ledwein had exercised his right under the Veterans Preference Act to have a further hearing on the matter.
The Advocate asserts that, to give the phrase "final disposition" such an interpretation would be contrary to both the "plain meaning" and "obvious purpose" of Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2 (1986), especially in cases involving higher ranking officials.
Both of The Advocate's contentions fail. First, it is clear from legal dictionary and case law definitions of "final disposition" that the plain meaning of "final disposition" supports Ledwein's position rather than The Advocate's. Second, the "obvious purpose" of Minn. Stat. § 13.43 appears to be the protection of personnel data. This is evidenced by the fact that the legislature, while providing that all government data is public unless specifically classified otherwise, provided in Minn. Stat. § 13.43 that all personnel data on public employees is private unless specifically listed otherwise. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 4 (1986). It is readily apparent that the legislature intended to extend substantial privacy protection to personnel data concerning its employees. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the legislature did not want data concerning the discipline of a government employee released until after the "final disposition" of the matter.
The Advocate is correct when it asserts that such an interpretation would result in delay of months and even years before disciplinary records could be released to the public. Indeed, in the present case, the investigative report may never become public since, months before his scheduled Veterans Preference Board hearing, Ledwein agreed to resign in exchange for the city's withdrawal of termination proceedings. While this may be true, the legislature has expressly indicated that confidential personnel data of government employees shall not become public until after a final disposition of the disciplinary proceeding. This comports with the legislature's intent to accord substantial privacy protection to personnel data. We, therefore, must find that the resolution passed at the Annandale City Council meeting was not a "final disposition" of this matter under Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2. *fn2
During oral argument at the court of appeals, the issue was raised as to whether the Annandale City Council meeting at which Ledwein was terminated should have been open pursuant to the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. City of Annandale, 418 N.W.2d at 524. After receiving and considering additional briefs, the court of appeals held that the City of Annandale did not have authority to close the meeting at which the investigative report was discussed. Id. at 525.
On appeal, Ledwein argues that the Open Meeting Law did not require that the meeting be open to the public. The resolution of this issue on appeal involves interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 1 (1986)--the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.
Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 1 (1986) lists the government bodies subject to the Open Meeting Law as follows:
Except as otherwise expressly provided by statute, all meetings, including executive sessions, of any state agency, board, commission or department when required or permitted by law to transact public business in a meeting, and the governing body of any school district however organized, unorganized territory, county, city, town, or other public body, and of any ...