eNotes: Liability – December 2022 – Virginia
December 01, 2022
SIGNIFICANT CASE SUMMARIES
Virginia Case Summary
Hawkins v. Town of South Hill
Virginia Supreme Court
Decided: October 20, 2022
The “personnel information” exemption to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act is based on a reasonable person’s privacy expectation.
In 2019, Richard Hawkins, III sought documents from the Town of South Hill related to employment disputes between the town manager and employees. Hawkins submitted four Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) requests between September 2019 and January 2020. While the Town responded to each request, Hawkins believed the responses were deficient. Hawkins filed a Petition for mandamus relief, arguing that the Town’s asserted VFOIA exemptions too broadly and improperly withheld documents. After reviewing the documents in camera, the Circuit Court granted the Petition in part, concluding that some of the documents were not exempt from disclosure under the “personnel record” exemption, but that five of the seven sought documents were exempt from disclosure.
The General Assembly intended VFOIA to provide Virginia citizens ready access to public records. There is a presumption that all public records are open unless an exemption is properly invoked. Those exemptions, however, are to be narrowly construed, as there is a presumption in favor of disclosure. Under Va. Code § 2.2-3705.1(1), VFOIA exempts “[p]ersonnel information concerning identifiable individuals” from disclosure, but does not define “personnel information.” The Court decided not to define what specific pieces of information were exempt, and declined to create its own balancing test, opting instead to look to an objective test. The Court held that data, facts and statements are private and protected if their disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy to a reasonable person under the circumstances. The precise contours of what is private are not rigid or precise, and must be determined by the circumstances of each case. As the Trial Court is in the best position to assess each case, the Court remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
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