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Navarre v. South Washington County Schools

October 10, 2002

KATHERINE NAVARRE, RESPONDENT,
v.
SOUTH WASHINGTON COUNTY SCHOOLS, PETITIONER, APPELLANT, NORTHWEST PUBLICATIONS D/B/A/ PIONEER PRESS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

When a plaintiff alleges multiple violations of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) based on the release of private personnel data in violation of Minnesota Statutes § 13.43, subd. 4 (2000), the district court must determine whether each disclosure contained any private personnel data as defined by the act.

Section 13.43, subdivision 2(a)(4) of the MGDPA defines the existence and status of complaints or charges against an employee as public data and does not authorize disclosure of the nature and type of complaint. The final disposition of any disciplinary action, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(5) together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis, with certain exceptions, is public data.

Mental impressions of the employer derived directly from personnel data recorded in some physical form or storage media, or derived directly from complaints, charges, or from their investigation, constitute private personnel data.

Minnesota Statutes § 13.39, subd. 2 (2000), does not allow a party holding personnel data to make such data accessible to the public where there is no indication that the chief attorney acting for the party holding the data was consulted about a pending civil action or that access to such data by the public would aid the law enforcement process, promote public health or safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest.

While a plaintiff may be allowed to submit to a jury an emotional damage claim under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act even though the evidence supporting such a claim is conclusory, the defendant should be allowed to introduce probative evidence of the plaintiff's pre-existing emotional condition, treatment and prognosis, including expert testimony and/or medical records, that is relevant to the plaintiff's claim for emotional damages.

A plaintiff may be able to recover loss of reputation damages under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act even though the plaintiff's defamation action had been dismissed. However, such recovery is precluded as a matter of law where the evidence presented in support of the claim is wholly insufficient and speculative.

The constructive discharge claim was not supported by evidence that the employer intentionally tried to force the employee to resign or acted with the intention of creating an intolerable working environment for the employee.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gilbert, Justice.

Court of Appeals Gilbert, J.

Took no part, Meyer and Hanson, JJ.

OPINION

Respondent Katherine Navarre brought suit against appellant South Washington County Schools seeking damages for several claims, including multiple violations of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). Ultimately, a jury trial was held and respondent received a verdict in her favor in the amount of $520,000. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for a new trial. We are now asked to resolve multiple issues related to the MGDPA claims.

Respondent began her employment with appellant in January 1988 and began working at Hillside Elementary School, one of appellant's schools, in the fall of 1996 as the sixth-grade communications teacher. During the 1996-1997 school year, appellant received several complaints from teachers, students, and parents regarding respondent's teaching, her treatment of students, and her ability to control her classroom. Hillside Principal Timothy Bess informed respondent of the concerns expressed by parents and students in a letter dated April 18, 1997, specifically telling respondent that parents were concerned about respondent being inconsistent in her communications with them and their children and about one parent's concern that respondent was not teaching the curriculum. Appellant also commenced an investigation in April 1997 and placed respondent on a paid leave of absence beginning May 15, 1997.*fn1 On Mayá19, 1997, Bess sent a letter to all sixth-grade parents advising them that respondent had been placed "on a medical leave for the remainder of this school year."

On May 28, 1997, Assistant Superintendent Stanley Hooper sent the sixth-grade parents a second letter, indicating that appellant would administer the communications portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to evaluate what their children had learned. This letter also stated:

[P]arents have a * * * concern about knowing whether their children have been successful in the Communications curriculum, and that the stories from children are numerous and sometimes alarming regarding the characteristics of the instructional program they received.

One of the parents faxed this letter to Pioneer Press reporter Theresa Monsour, who then interviewed Hooper on May 29, 1997. In this interview, Hooper provided Monsour with details about the complaints and appellant's response to these complaints. According to Monsour's notes, Hooper told her the following:

parents have called hillside. teachers have sat kids down and talked in detail. some said did do some things. we aren't comfortable that some of what they are talking about isn't valid. so doing standardized to see what learned.

said parents were calling principal and said getting strong stories about what was going on. one day principal did sub. he asked children more information based on what parents were talking about. he had been aware of some of those issues for while. frequency of calls. some parents were concerned about their children but weren't attributing it to lack of instruction. others said towards spring of year, problems.

some children described it as social hour. teacher had difficulty in classroom management. from kids point of [view], out of hand. principal, he indicated that may have been the case. he was not seeing that in other classrooms. kids move from room to room. were not having difficulty in other rooms.

had not had other problems that i know of. nothing where anything formal had been done.

it's unusual in terms of number of parents calling dr. bess and myself.

i've had four calls and others pending. playing [telephone] tag. bess has had more than that.

said district had been working with the teacher. the teacher had been responding to what teacher was, helping her learn better classroom management. earliest calls from parents there were concerns about not learning in classroom. principal worked with teacher to get documentation that teacher had been working with the students, examples of student work. she was providing some information in response to that.

said he didn't get calls until this spring. first was two weeks ago. doesn't know how long bess has.

said year started out okay, [classroom] management okay. [fell] apart with spring.

she was asked for grades, she gave [out] grades. she did give some homework out during the year.

On May 30, 1997, the Pioneer Press published an article with the headline "100ákids who learn 'nothing' face summer school." This article identified respondent by name and discussed the concerns about respondent's teaching that parents and students had reported to appellant, at times directly quoting Hooper and at other times attributing the source of the information to Hooper. That same day, Superintendent Dan Hoke issued a press release, stating:

I am here today to respond to allegations that 6th graders at Hillside Elementary School did not learn anything this year and that their communications teacher is incompetent.

These allegations are extremely serious and we are continuing our investigation. The allegations are serious enough and substantiated enough that we took the action of suspending the teacher and testing the students.

*á*á*á*á

We first heard concerns about the situation last fall, when parents called to report that their children were having difficulty learning the communications curriculum.

*á*á*á*

This spring the concerns shifted from concern about student performance to concern about the teacher's teaching methods. These concerns were investigated by the principal ...


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