By Michael Howell
In an Order and Memorandum issued July 18, Missoula District Court Judge Karen Townsend ordered the Missoula County Public School (MCPS) District to release the documents in its possession related to investigations of misconduct by Stamey while she served as the District’s Food Service Administrator. Other” routine employment” documents were deemed protected by privacy claims and are not to be released.
The Bitterroot Star, along with KECI television and the Missoula Independent, asked the MCPS to release information about Stamey’s employment. The Star asked specifically for records related to any disciplinary issues in which Stamey was alleged to have engaged in fraudulent or illegal activity. Stamey objected to the release of any information. Instead of answering the requests MCPS filed a petition in District Court naming the news media and Stamey as defendants. The District stated that it was unable to apply the rule for determining whether privacy laws apply or not due to unclear case law. It asked the judge to perform an in camera review of Stamey’s file and declare what could and what could not be disclosed.
Stamey’s attorney filed a response in the case nearly one month past the deadline for filing and another response to the question of attorney fees two days past the deadline. The Court decided to consider the late responses “because of the important Constitutional implications, the absence of a motion to strike from the other parties and a reluctance to punish a client for her attorney’s failure to meet deadlines.”
Nonetheless, when it applied the “balancing test” to determine if the right to privacy claims clearly outweigh the public’s right to know, the Court found that Stamey had an actual or subjective expectation of privacy in some of her employment records such as some application information, a medical evaluation, beneficiary entitlement forms and other “benign information that has no relation to misconduct.” But the court found that employees have no expectation of privacy in documents related to a violation of the public trust and that Stamey served in a position of public trust as supervisor of the food services program for MCPS. Those issues concern “the misuse of public money, misuse of facilities, and careless management practices.” The judge found that even if Stamey had an expectation of privacy concerning those documents, it is not an expectation of privacy that society is willing to recognize.
“Having determined that Valerie does not have a protected privacy interest in the termination letters, weighing her right to privacy against the public’s right to know is not necessary. However, even if this Court had found that Valerie has a reasonable expectation of privacy, that privacy interest is outweighed by the public’s right to know because her position with the school district was one of public trust, and the public has a compelling and substantial interest in investigatory documents concerning the misuse and misappropriation of public funds.”
In a counter claim, the media had requested attorney fees if they should prevail in the case, arguing that the school district deprived them of their right to examine public documents by instead filing for an declaratory judgment. The Court found that the school district acted prudently in filing the case as they were threatened with a lawsuit by either party no matter what decision was made and that the application of the legal “balancing test” was not possible due to “unclear case law.” The court declined to award attorney fees.
The court delayed the effective date of the order as it pertains to the release of the documents till July 28 or later to give Stamey time to move for a stay if she decides to appeal the ruling. The court identified the documents to be released as:
• October 15, 2010 document entitled Investigation into Alleged Misuse of School District Funds
• October 28, 2010 letter to Valerie Addis from Pat McHugh
• October 25, 2010 document entitled Summary of Investigation of Val Addis’ use of District vendors
• February 24, 2011 memo from Alex Apostle re: Valerie Addis
• November 3, 2010 letter of reprimand from Scott Reed to Valerie Addis
• March 2, 2011 letter acknowledging resignation from Stephen McHugh to Valerie Addis.
Stamey resigned from the MCPS food service job before her contract expired and went to work cleaning rooms at a local hotel. She filed a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination a year past the statute of limitations in such cases but that lawsuit was never served on the school district.
Although the MCPS was listed as one of Stamey’s prior places of employment on her application for the Treasurer’s position in Ravalli County, the County failed to make any inquiry with the school district about her performance at the job.