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Hagen v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin System

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District II

June 20, 2018

Willis W. Hagen, II, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Defendants-Respondents, Alexander Nemec, Intervenor-Respondent.

          APPEAL from an order of the circuit court for Winnebago County, Cir. Ct. No. 2017CV389 DANIEL J. BISSETT, Judge. Affirmed.

          Before Neubauer, C.J., Reilly, P.J., and Hagedorn, J.

          NEUBAUER, C.J.

         ¶1 In this Public Records Law case, Willis W. Hagen, II, brought an action under WIS. STAT. § 19.356 (2015-16)[1] to enjoin the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (the University) from disclosing to Alexander Nemec records relating to an investigation of a complaint against Hagen, a professor at the University. The circuit court denied the request for injunctive relief, concluding that no statutory or common-law exception barred the records' release and that the presumption of public access, see WIS. STAT. § 19.31, outweighed any public interest in nondisclosure. We affirm the order.[2]


         ¶2 In March 2017, Nemec, a reporter, made a request for records relating to "closed complaints" against Hagen. After locating and partially redacting forty-four pages, the University gave statutory notice to Hagen in compliance with Wis.Stat. § 19.356(2). A sealed affidavit provides details about what was and was not redacted and why. The records custodian concluded that no statutory exception shielded the partially redacted records-as the internal investigation was completed-and that the public's interest in access to the records outweighed any interest in nondisclosure.

         ¶3 Hagen commenced this action under Wis.Stat. § 19.356(4) to enjoin the University from disclosing the report. Nemec intervened as a matter of right under § 19.356(4).

         ¶4 After an in-camera inspection of the records and the parties' submissions, the court concluded that Hagen had identified no statutory or common-law exception to disclosure. The court next engaged in the balancing test and, after a thorough and well-considered analysis, concluded that the strong public interest in disclosure applicable in a case involving investigation of a complaint about a professor at a public institution outweighed any concerns Hagen provided regarding damage to his reputation. The court determined that some of the University's redactions were overbroad, and some of them were withdrawn. The court denied Hagen's request for an injunction. This appeal followed.[3]


         ¶5 Absent a clear statutory exception, a limitation under the common law, or an overriding public interest in keeping a public record confidential, Hathaway v. Joint Sch. Dist., 116 Wis.2d 388, 397, 342 N.W.2d 682 (1984), Wisconsin's Public Records Law "shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, " Wis.Stat. § 19.31. As the denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, access may be denied "only in an exceptional case." Id. "[A]n 'exceptional case' … exists when the facts are such that the public policy interests favoring nondisclosure outweigh the public policy interests favoring disclosure, notwithstanding the strong presumption favoring disclosure." Hempel v. City of Baraboo, 2005 WI 120, ¶63, 284 Wis.2d 162, 699 N.W.2d 551');">699 N.W.2d 551. The interpretation and application of the Public Records Law to undisputed facts present questions of law that we review de novo but benefiting from the circuit court's analysis. Kailin v. Rainwater, 226 Wis.2d 134, 147, 593 N.W.2d 865 (Ct. App. 1999). The party seeking nondisclosure has the burden to show that "public interests favoring secrecy outweigh those favoring disclosure." John K. MacIver Inst. for Pub. Policy, Inc. v. Erpenbach, 2014 WI.App. 49, ¶14, 354 Wis.2d 61, 848 N.W.2d 862 (citation omitted).

         ¶6 Hagen complains that the circuit court erred when it concluded that no statutory exceptions applied. He contends that Wis.Stat. § 19.36(10)(d) should exempt the records, as the records relate to "staff management planning."[4]This court has made clear, however, that, once the investigation into possible misconduct by a public employee is completed, para. (10)(d) does not exempt records of the investigation from disclosure. Kroeplin v. DNR, 2006 WI.App. 227, ¶32, 297 Wis.2d 254, 725 N.W.2d 286 (explaining that § 19.36(10)(b) is the only exception to the Public Records Law that applies to allegations of employee misconduct and only applies to current investigations). The records at issue here include notices of a complaint and related investigation; a summary of a meeting about that investigation; the resulting report on the complaint, investigation, and findings; the complaint itself; responses by Hagen to the complaint and findings; and recommendations and sanctions stemming from the investigation. There are also emails regarding the complaint and investigation. The circuit court correctly determined that no statutory exception exists for records of closed misconduct investigations.

         ¶7 We turn to the balancing test. It entails assessing whether allowing inspection would result in harm to the public interest that outweighs the legislative policy recognizing the strong public interest in allowing inspection. Hathaway, 116 Wis.2d at 402-03.

         ¶8 Wisconsin courts have recognized the "great importance of disclosing disciplinary records of public employees and officials where the conduct involves violations of the law or significant work rules, " Kroeplin, 297 Wis.2d 254, ¶28, and the public's "particularly strong interest in being informed about public officials who have been 'derelict in [their] duty, '" even at the cost of possible reputational harm, Wisconsin Newspress, Inc. v. School Dist. of Sheboygan Falls, 199 Wis.2d 768, 786, 546 N.W.2d 143 (1996) (alteration in original; citation omitted).

         ¶9 Moreover, the public has a strong interest in monitoring the disciplinary operations of a public institution. Linzmeyer v. Forcey, 2002 WI 84, ¶28, 254 Wis.2d 306, 646 N.W.2d 811; Zellner v. Cedarburg Sch. Dist., 2007 WI 53, ¶53, 300 Wis.2d 290, 731 N.W.2d 240 (noting the public "has an interest in knowing how the government handles the disciplinary actions of public employees"). Hagen's stated concern that release would have a chilling effect on attracting qualified candidates for future employment is "remote-too remote to overcome the policy favoring disclosure of public records." State ex rel. Journal/Sentinel, Inc. v. Arreola, 207 Wis.2d 496, 517, 558 N.W.2d 670 (Ct. App. 1996). Releasing records relating to misconduct investigations is unlikely to discourage recruitment of good teachers. Indeed, it is as likely that current or prospective ...

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