Supreme Court Rules in Favor of OPEA on Birthdate Privacy

The Oklahoma Supreme Court released a ruling June 28 that affirmed OPEA’s position that state employee birth dates should remain confidential and not be subject to exploitation.

“We determine that when the balancing test is applied to the facts presented, where significant privacy interests are at stake while the public’s interest either in employee birth dates or employee identification numbers is minimal, release of birth dates and employee identification numbers of state employees ‘would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’” the Oklahoma Supreme Court decision stated, in a 7-2 decision.

“This is a great victory for OPEA and state employees,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “The Association followed through on this critical issue all the way to the Supreme Court because we believed state employees, who dedicate their lives to public service, should not have their private information released to the press or other

The issue came to the forefront in February 2010, when reporters from The Oklahoman requested all state employee names and birth dates from the Oklahoma Office of Personnel Management. OPEA filed an injunction to protect state employees from this unwarranted invasion. Representing OPEA were Kevin Donelson and Carole Houghton of Fellers, Snider, Blankenship, Bailey & Tippens.

“We are delighted the Supreme Court has upheld the ruling to protect the privacy rights of the employees of the state of Oklahoma,” said Donelson.

“OPEA was concerned that an employee’s birth date could be the missing puzzle piece in both financial and health care identity fraud,” Zearley said. “In addition, the safety of corrections officers, child welfare workers and other employees who work with the public could be put in jeopardy.”

In 2010, Rep. Randy Terrill and Sen. Debbe Leftwich authored legislation to protect state employee birth dates. This legislation was supported by members of the public safety community concerned with the security of state employees who may be identified by this information.

Terrill said the Supreme Court ruling is a victory for the personal privacy and safety of Oklahoma citizens who have state jobs.

“Today’s decision vindicates past legislative efforts to protect the privacy rights and safety concerns of Oklahoma citizens who happen to work for the state,” said Terrill, R-Moore. “The decision makes clear that the blanket release of state employees’ personal identifying information would constitute a clearly unreasonable and unwarranted invasion of privacy.”

“This is the end of a long journey,” said Zearley. “OPEA is proud of this great accomplishment for current and future state employees.”

A Long But Successful Journey

OPEA’s long journey to protect state employee privacy began in February 2010, when The Oklahoman asked the Office of Personnel Management to release information about all state employees, including full name, employee ID number, agency, job description, start date and date of birth.

Journalists cited the public’s need to know if the names and birth dates of state employees matched up with court records indicating state employees had committed crimes or had been involved in another type of wrongdoing.

“This is subjecting all state employees to an invasion of privacy so reporters can use computer data mining to make their job easier,” said Zearley. “If reporters believe a state employee has committed a crime, we have no problem with them requesting information about that individual. But conducting a witch hunt with the information of thousands of state employees is going too far.”

OPEA filed an injunction in District Court in March 2010, seeking to protect state employees’ confidential information. In April, the Troopers Association filed a similar injunction.

On April 9, 2010, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bryan Dixon halted the release of state employee information by granting a temporary restraining order to a courtroom packed with OPEA members and staff, troopers and media representatives.

Earlier in the 2010 session, Leftwich and Terrill authored SB 1753, which was aimed at protecting state employee ID numbers and birth dates from release. While the bill made it through the Senate, it was not heard in the House, leaving OPEA to continue its fight in the courts.

In the fall of 2010, the action continued in district court when Dixon ruled that state agencies had the sole authority in determining whether or not releasing birth dates would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

OPEA discouraged agencies from releasing their employees’ private information and continued to the Supreme Court. In June, the Supreme Court concurred with OPEA that the release of state employee birth dates would be an invasion of privacy and could subject workers to identity theft or harassment.

“Although state employees’ privacy interests may be diminished somewhat by taking a position in an agency subject to public scrutiny, they do not surrender all privacy rights by accepting public employment,” the ruling stated. “However, [it] is important to note that the policy of disclosure is purposed to serve the public interest and not to satisfy the public’s curiosity.”

To view the Supreme Court ruling click here.

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