Court Rules Sexual Harassment Probe Is Public Record

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious matter, though it often goes unreported and unpunished. A Santa Monica teacher who was accused of sexual harassment by his teacher recently learned that the court is requiring the district to make his reprimand letter public in an effort to provide greater transparency to the allegations and the punishment.

A Los Angeles appeals court recently ruled that parents are lawfully allowed to review records of how a Santa Monica High School teacher violated the school district's sexual harassment policy. The Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles determined parents have a substantial interest in understanding how the school district handled the teacher's involvement with a student and what was reportedly done to remedy the sexual harassment.

The facts leading to the court matter involve a 13-year-old girl who alleged that her math teach sexually harassed her. While no criminal action was taken against the teacher, the school district reprimanded the teacher and suspended him from teaching for a month. Following the 3-0 court ruling, the school district in question must relinquish the letter of reprimand the teacher received, along with other records of the November 2008 investigation, minus the name of the victim and witnesses.

Basis for the Sexual Harassment Reprimand Decision

The teacher is in a position of trust and responsibility, the court ruled, and even if no misconduct was found, the complaint was "well-founded and substantial." The school district is required to hand over its documents regarding the harassment because of the trust placed in teachers.

From an employee's standpoint, having access to internal documents divulging the handling of sexual harassment claims provides insight into whether legal action ought to have been taken against the teacher. Despite the favorable ruling for the students and their families, the court stipulated that people who want to see government records after an employee has taken them to court are not entitled to receive attorneys' fees.

An attorney representing one of parents said the court's decision will make it more difficult for people to access government records and guarantee their rights are being protected. Without the availability of attorneys' fees, it may be cost prohibitive for parents to seek public disclosure of otherwise private investigations.

Additionally, experts believe employees may become less enticed to assist in sexual harassment investigations of coworkers for fear their testimony could be made public. The attorney recommends public employees should not worry about what they say if they are obeying the rules and standard procedures of the workplace. The school district has yet to release the records and it is unknown whether how or when will follow the court's decision.