Personal Information in Public Records: Is It Subject to Disclosure?
People submit their personal information to public agencies in various contexts, including when a citizen signs up for public comment at an agency meeting, a witness to a crime is interviewed by the police, a new employee is hired by an agency, or a homeowner starts receiving utility services. How much of this personal information is subject to public disclosure?
Before I jump into what personal information can be disclosed, I want to note that the information in this blog post is not exhaustive. I am highlighting only the types of personal information that MRSC is most frequently asked about; other personal information may be protected under other provisions of the Public Records Act (PRA) or other statutes.
Let’s start with examples of information that, as a general rule, should not be released, regardless of who the person is (e.g., an employee, a member of the public) and where the information is located:
- Social security numbers: RCW 42.56.230(5); see also RCW 42.56.250(3) (specifically applies to agency employees and volunteers).
- Driver’s license numbers: RCW 42.56.230(5); see also RCW 42.56.250(3) (specifically applies to agency employees and volunteers).
- Special note with regard to driver's license numbers: The legislature amended RCW 42.56.230(5) in 2015 after the 2014 City of Lakewood v. Koenig opinion. In that opinion, the Supreme Court declined to reach the issue of whether driver's license numbers were exempt under the PRA, but touched on the issue by quoting the following reasoning of the court of appeals: "Allowing the release of private citizen's personal identifying information exposes private citizens to the risk of harm such as identity theft . . . Accordingly, we believe that the failure to include an express PRA exemption that impedes the crime of identity theft and protects the release of personal identifying information appears to be an unfortunate oversight, but that is up to the legislature, not the courts to address." The 2015 amendment exempts "financial information" as defined in RCW 9.35.005; this definition includes driver's license numbers. While the reference to "financial information" is a bit confusing, I read the final bill report for the amendment as intending to exempt driver's license numbers in general. This reading is also consistent with the concerns expressed by the Court in Lakewood v. Koenig.
- Credit card numbers, debit card numbers, and bank account numbers: RCW 42.56.230(5).
- Medical/health information: chapter 70.02 RCW, though subject to certain exceptions.
Other personal information is protected only for certain categories of people and/or if it’s located within specific types of records. (And, sometimes, the personal information can be released to certain agencies or specifically identified people, such as parents or other relatives.)
- Agency employees
- Home addresses, personal phone numbers, and personal email addresses located in agency personnel records, public employment-related records, or mailing lists: RCW 42.56.250(3).
- Applications for agency employment (and the related materials, such as the employee’s resume): RCW 42.56.250(2).
- Other employee personal information (for example, charitable contributions, deferred compensation, and family information related to calculating health plans, job benefits, and taxes) located in agency-maintained employee files to the extent that disclosure would violate the employee’s right to privacy: RCW 42.56.230(3). Unfortunately for employees, this “right to privacy” in RCW 42.56.230(3) will not protect everything a person wishes to keep private. It only applies to those private facts that are “fairly comparable” to the following explanation provided by the Washington State Supreme Court in Predisik v. Spokane School Dist. No. 81, quoting from a somewhat dated definition (with the masculine-only gender references):
Every individual has some phases of his life and his activities and some facts about himself that he does not expose to the public eye, but keeps entirely to himself or at most reveals only to his family or to close personal friends. Sexual relations, for example, are normally entirely private matters, as are family quarrels, many unpleasant or disgraceful or humiliating illnesses, most intimate personal letters, most details of a man's life in his home, and some of his past history that he would rather forget.
- Performance reviews of most agency employees (except CEO, e.g.,city manager, and similar positions), unless related to specific instances of misconduct. RCW 42.56.230(3); Spokane Research & Defense Fund v. City of Spokane.
- Agency volunteers
- Children and juveniles
- Personal information of a child enrolled in a parks and recreation program and other similar programs: RCW 42.56.230(2).
- Identity of child victims or witnesses: RCW 7.69A.030 and 7.69A.050; see also RCW 10.97.130.
- Juvenile records, including both criminal records (not located in the court file), and records not related to the commission of a crime: RCW 13.50.050 and 13.50.100.
- Utility customers
- Addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and customer-specific utility usage and billing information in increments less than a billing cycle. RCW 42.56.330(2).
Other personal information is not protected at all:
- Photographs of members of the public or agency employees (except for photographs of employees of criminal justice agencies, which are exempt under RCW 42.56.250(8)).
- Citizen names, home addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses located in other public records, including building permits, general communications with the agency, or public meeting sign-up sheets.
The challenging thing about whether to disclose an individual’s personal information is that one size does not fit all; the applicability of the exemptions and prohibitions to disclosure of personal information depends on who the person is and where the information is located. One cannot just assume that all personal information can be withheld; the PRA and other statutes need to be carefully reviewed before an agency decides to withhold an individual’s personal information from disclosure.
Have a question or comment about this information? Post in the comments below or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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