The public has a right to know the pension benefits paid to individual retired county employees, the Sacramento area district of the California Court of Appeal has unanimously ruled in the first appellate decision of its kind, after trial courts across the state have reached the same conclusion.
As reported by Thomson Reuters,
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, on Wednesday ordered the Sacramento County Employees' Retirement System (SCERS) to reveal the pension amounts of named county retirees. The unanimous opinion rejected arguments that the information is private and confidential.
The Sacramento Bee newspaper had requested the pension amounts and names of all retirees making over $100,000 a year in 2009, amid public outcry over the state's soaring pension liabilities. SCERS provided the dollar amounts but refused to disclose any names, claiming that such information was shielded under the California Public Records Act, which carves out protection for "individual records."
The newspaper took its case to court, arguing that the public had a right to the information, given the tricks that many public employees have allegedly used to boost their retirement income. The Sacramento Bee presented evidence of so-called "pension spiking," where employees worked overtime or cash out vacation time to increase their income in their last year of employment, and "double dipping," where they collect both a pension and a salary from another job.
The trial court judge ruled that public employee pensions do not qualify as private information protected under the statute, and the court of appeals agreed.
"Although SCERS has identified some legitimate interests in nondisclosure, they fall far short of compelling," the court of appeal's ruling said. "We do not view the fact of an individual's public retirement to be a personal matter."
"We respectfully disagree," said Stephen Roberts, a lawyer for SCERS, who said that the term "individual records" applies to any records that identify the individual.
The court also rejected the retirement system's claim that disclosure would expose retirees to public hostility, fraud and identity theft in their "golden years."
Numerous media organizations joined the case as interested parties in favor of disclosure, including the Los Angeles Times Communications, the Associated Press, the Hearst Corp and the New York Times. Thomson Reuters did not join this case, but did sign on to an amicus brief in a similar San Diego case that is currently on appeal.
Thomas Burke, a lawyer for several of the media companies involved in the case, said the unanimous decision was an important ruling that vindicates the public's right of access. "There could be no more critical time to have this kind of information be publicly available, when virtually every county in the state is grappling with budgetary issues affected by pension obligations for county retirees," he said.
Multiple trial courts across California have ordered county retirement systems to turn over the names and pension amounts of county retirees. The Sacramento Bee case is the first one to reach a decision on appeal, according to Burke.