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John Doe v. University of Iowa

January 9, 2013


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Johnson County, Thomas G. Reidel, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Danilson, J.

Plaintiff appeals the district court decision finding an employment-related agreement between himself and the University of Iowa was a public record, subject to inspection and copying. AFFIRMED AND REMANDED.

Heard by Potterfield, P.J., and Danilson and Tabor, JJ.

John Doe appeals from a district court ruling ordering the release of a settlement agreement between Doe and the University of Iowa. Doe was an employee of the University at the time the parties entered into the agreement. Doe asserts the settlement agreement is not subject to disclosure under the Iowa Open Records law, Iowa Code chapter 22 (2011). The Associated Press and the University contend the document is a public record. Because we agree the settlement agreement is a public document, we affirm.

I. Background Facts & Proceedings

The parties entered into a stipulation concerning the facts of this case. On January 31, 2011, a correspondent with the Associated Press (AP), sent a request to the University of Iowa for copies of all settlement agreements reached between the University and faculty members from January 1, 2009, to the time of the request. The University notified plaintiff, an employee of the University, that an agreement he entered into with the University in June 2010 would be released to the AP pursuant to the request. The agreement provided that plaintiff would tender his resignation no later than June 30, 2011, and he would be paid a salary through that date, although he would receive a change in assignment. The agreement provided that it "shall remain confidential to the extent permitted by law."

On February 21, 2011, plaintiff filed a petition in equity under the name John Doe*fn1 seeking an injunction to restrain the examination of the document pursuant to Iowa Code section 22.8 or alternatively seeking a declaratory judgment that his agreement with the University was confidential under Iowa Code section 22.7(11), which makes confidential "[p]ersonal information in confidential personnel records of public bodies including but not limited to cities, boards of supervisors and school districts." The AP filed a request to intervene in the action, and the district court granted the request to intervene.*fn2 At the time of trial, Doe withdrew his request for injunctive relief pursuant to section 22.8.*fn3

While this action was pending, the Iowa legislature amended section 22.7(11), effective May 12, 2011. 2011 Iowa Acts ch. 106, § 10, § 17. The amendment specified information in personnel records that would be considered public records.*fn4 Id. § 10. Based on the amendment, the AP filed a renewed request for a copy of the agreement on August 1, 2011.

The district court issued a ruling on February 23, 2012, determining that the agreement was not confidential under section 22.7(11). The court considered several factors and concluded the agreement was a settlement agreement that was intended to settle all disputes between the parties.*fn5 The court relied upon Des Moines Independent Community School District Public Records v. Des Moines Register & Tribune Co., 487 N.W.2d 666, 669 (Iowa 1992), which held settlement agreements with public bodies were subject to disclosure. The court conducted a balancing test to weigh plaintiff's individual privacy interests against the public's right to the information, and concluded the agreement should be disclosed. The court specifically did not address the recent amendment to section 22.7(11). Plaintiff appeals the decision of the district court.*fn6

II. Standard of Review

This case was filed in equity, and thus our review is de novo. Iowa R. App. P. 6.907; Iowa Film Prod. Servs. v. Iowa Dep't of Econ. Dev., 818 N.W.2d 207, 217 (Iowa 2012). "Our review of the district court's application of section 22.7 to the undisputed facts shown in the record before it is de novo." DeLaMater v. Marion Civil Serv. Comm'n, 554 N.W.2d 875, 878 (Iowa 1996). We review the district court's interpretation of chapter 22, however, for the correction of errors at law. Iowa Film, 818 N.W.2d at 217. A party seeking the protection of an exception in section 22.7 has the burden of demonstrating the applicability of that exception. Clymer v. City of Cedar Rapids, 601 N.W.2d 42, 45 (Iowa 1999).

III. Merits

A. The Open Records Act.

Iowa's open records law for government bodies is found in chapter 22. The purpose of the statute is "to remedy unnecessary secrecy in conducting the public's business." Am. Civil Liberties Union Found. of Iowa, Inc. v. Records Custodian, Atlantic Cmty. Sch. Dist., 818 N.W.2d 231, 232 (Iowa 2012). "Iowa's 'open records' act invites public scrutiny of the government's work, recognizing ...

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