Constitutional Right to Privacy? (a follow-up)

Following up on yesterday's bit of news, I was asked why the case cited entitled the PSEA to a stay, reimposing the injunction against releasing home addresses.  Essentially, the PA Supreme Court gave that answer by the case they cited, although the meaning of the answer is a bit cryptic.

The Court cited Pa. Pub. Util. Comm'n v. Process Gas Consumers Group case to give that entitlement.  That case sets the standards for when a "stay" is granted (sometimes called a "supersedeas," it is when a court will put its decision on hold pending the outcome of the appeal).  In applying the first part of that case's standard to the present case, we learn that the PA Supreme Court believes that the PSEA has "ma[de] a strong showing that [it] is likely to prevail on the merits." Id., at 808.

However, remember that the Commonwealth Court "dismissed" or "threw out" the case on procedural grounds, saying that the PSEA sued the wrong party, and specifically should not have sued the OOR.  This is what makes the above reference cryptic.  The appeal before the Supreme Court now is on the question whether the case should have been thrown out on these procedural grounds.  The Court could be answering that limited question (procedurally, the case should not have been thrown out at that stage of the case), or the more fundamental and ultimate question (there is a constitutional right to privacy).

Whichever reason, the PA Supreme Court has telegraphed its initial feeling that the case had sufficient merit to at least go further in the process.  For all we know, it could rule on the constitutional right to privacy issue, too.

Commonwealth Court Halts Release of Home Addresses of Public School Employees

On July 28, 2009, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court entered the dispute over whether the home addresses of public school employees are a matter of public record under the Right to Know Law.  In the past, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records has taken the view that the addresses are not protected from release under the exceptions included in the Right to Know Law, as the only exception provided for home addresses is for law enforcement officers and judges.  The Commonwealth Court has now stayed the release of any addresses of public school employees and enjoined the Office of Open Records from Ordering the release of such addresses. 

For now, Districts currently facing a request for home addresses may safely refuse to provide them.  The Commonwealth Court has indicated that an opinion will follow and further details will be post on the blog when that occurs. 

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A Pennsylvania court's view of HIPAA, FERPA, and student records

The Pennsylvania Superior Court considered, and rejected, the notion that two federal privacy statutes create privileges against disclosing student records during the course of litigation discovery. But a state law, however, might bar production of such records.

The case involved a former student’s discovery demands in a case against a private special school. Student alleged he suffered sexual abuse and sought records relating to other similar possible past claims against the school. The school opposed producing any such records citing various statutory confidentiality protections against disclosing records involving other students.

The court found that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, known as “HIPAA,” and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as “FERPA,”  set forth the parameters by which protected student records can be disclosed and that, generally, disclosure pursuant to court order is an exception to the non-disclosure rule. In this respect, the state court decision comports with the statutes.

More interesting is how the court viewed the argument about a privilege against litigation disclosure based on state law. The Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act, known as the “MHPA,” is seen as creating a privilege, with the only exception being legal proceedings permitted under the MHPA. The court did not decide the ultimate issue but instead sent the case back to the trial court to consider with the school was a “facility” under the MHPA and whether the MHPA actually applied. 

The case is a good reminder that many times state laws can offer more protections (or obstacles depending on your position) than federal laws.