Court of Appeals clarifies when closed session minutes for personnel discussions are public

The Court of Appeals Tuesday provided significant guidance for trial courts reviewing disputes over access to closed session minutes. The court also clarified that when  closed sessions are held for personnel that any policy or political discussions will be public. The decision came in a case brought by the Times-News of Burlington against the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education. 

In May 2014, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education went into a closed session to discuss personnel matters. When the board came out, they announced that Superintendent Lillie Cox would be resigning and that she was given a $200,000 severance package. The Times-News requested the minutes of the closed session and was given a heavily redacted copy.

The Burlington newspaper then filed a lawsuit in October to gain access to the unredacted minutes. In December, Special Superior Court Judge Lucy Inman dismissed the case, finding that the records were covered by the personnel exemption to the Public Records Law. The Times-News appealed and in March a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals heard the case. 

Tuesday, the court released its opinion sending the case back to Alamance County Superior Court for further review. The opinion, written by Judge Richard Dietz, found that trial courts must conduct an in camera review, or one in the judge’s chambers out of the public eye, of the closed session minutes when there is a dispute over whether the minutes are public.

The Open Meetings Law allows closed session minutes to be withheld as long as releasing them would “frustrate the purpose of” the closed session.  The court’s opinion noted that: “[W]hen a public body enters a closed session to discuss personnel information that falls within the scope of (the personnel exemption), disclosure of that personnel information always would frustrate the purpose of the closed session and thus may be withheld under (the Open Meetings Law)”

But the court also said: “[T]hat does not mean that all contents of closed session minutes in personnel cases are beyond disclosure. When a public body meets—particularly one made up of elected officials—the discussion of a personnel matter often could include political and policy considerations broader than the ‘core’ personnel information described in (the personnel exemption.) Moreover, as we explained above, when the withholding is challenged in court, it is for the trial court, not the school board, to assess what is and is not subject to disclosure under this legal test.” 

Joining Dietz in the opinion were Chief Judge Linda McGee and Judge Robert N. Hunter, Jr. Their decision overturns Inman, who is now their colleague. She joined the Court of Appeals in January. 

A date has not yet been set for the case to be heard in Alamance Superior Court, where a judge will have to review the minutes in chambers and determine if any of it should be released. 

Read commentary on the decision from Doug Clark of the News & Record here