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  • November 11, 2021

    Appeals Court Allows Mandamus Action on School Records to Proceed

    Jeff M. Brown

    Public Records​​

    Nov. 11, 2021 – An action to compel a school district to turn over applications for a vacant school board position and applicants’ personal information will go forw​​​ard under an opinion issued by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals District II last week.

    In Mastel v. School Di​strict of Elmbrook, 2020AP1871 (Oct. 28, 2021), a three-judge panel held that a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge erred by dismissing a mandamus action brought by a public records requester.

    The requester, Cheri Mastel, emaile​d the School District of Elmbrook on May 12, 2020. Reportedly, Mastel had previously served on an advisory committee tasked with recommending a plan to update the school district’s human growth and development curriculum.

    In her email, Mastel asked the district for a list of the applicants for the vacant school board position or electronic copies of the applications. Later that day, the school board filled the vacant position by appointing Dr. Mushir Hassan.

    The district replied to Mastel by email on May 20, 2020. The district determined that it had records responsive to Matel’s request, the records were subject to disclosure under the state’s public records law, and it intended to disclose the records, but the request would be delayed several days.

    Mastel’s lawyer emailed the district in reply. The delay in disclosure was unlawful, the lawyer wrote, and his client insisted that the district immediately disclose the candidate applications.

    Additionally, Mastel’s lawyer clarified that Mastel was requesting copies of emails the district had instructed applicants to send to the district, and not only the applications attached to those emails.

    Five of Eight; Redactions

    The district replied to Mastel’s records request with an email on June 2, 2020.

    The district cited Wis. Stat. section 19.36(7) in stating that it was releasing only the applications of the five finalists for the vacant board position. The district cited Wis. Stat. section 19.36(11) in stating that it had redacted personal information from the applications, including home addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers. The records that the district determined were responsive to Mastel’s request were attached to the email.

    Mastel filed an action for a writ of mandamus. She claimed that it was unlawful for the district to withhold the applications of the three applicants who were not finalists because none of the three had requested in writing that the district not reveal his or her identity.

    Under section 19.36(7), such a request is a precondition for mandatory nondisclosure of records related to an application for a public position.

    Mastel also claimed that it was unlawful for the district to withhold the personal information from the applications it released because none of the applicants were public office holders, and section 19.36(11) specifies that a public body may withhold personal information only for state and local public office holders.

    Additionally, Mastel claimed that the district improperly redacted the email address and signature block from the email Hassan sent to the district, and improperly failed to provide her with copies of the eligibility declaration forms that the district required the candidates to submit.

    The district moved to dismiss Mastel’s petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The circuit court granted the district’s motion.

    'Generic References'​ Were Not Sufficient

    In an opinion written by Presiding Judge Mark D. Gundrum, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision in part, affirmed it in part, and remanded the case.

    The trial court judge misapplied section 19.36(7), Gundrum wrote. In his ruling, the trial court judge made only a “generic reference” to section 19.36(7).

    “Subsection (7) does not apply to protect the identities of the three applicants who were not final candidates if they did not provide such a written indication to the District, as the petition alleges is the case here,” Judge Gundrum noted. “The petition sufficiently states a claim that the District violated the public records law by failing to disclose the applications of these three non-‘final candidate’ applicants.”

    A similarly “generic reference” to section 19.36(11) constituted error in the circuit court’s ruling on the issue of the personal information that was redacted from the five applications Mastel did receive, Gundrum wrote.

    “Mastel’s petition explains why this provision does not apply, noting that subsection (11) only prohibits the release of such information ‘of an individual who holds a local public office or a state public office’ …. she has sufficiently stated a claim that the District violated the public records law in redacting this information.”

    The district court’s ruling that Mastel failed to state a claim regarding the district’s redaction of Hassan’s personal information was erroneous for the same reason, Gundrum wrote.

    “Without further explanation, ‘section 19.36(11),’ by itself, does not provide a sufficient legal basis to refuse disclosure of non-‘home’ information. Mastel’s petition sufficiently states a claim with regard to the redacted information of Hassan.”

    Petition Fails as to Forms

    However, Mastel’s petition failed to state a claim for relief with regard to the candidates’ declaration of eligibility forms, the appellate panel held. The emails from Mastel and her lawyer requesting the records asked for a list of applicants and copies of the applications; neither email mentioned declarations of eligibility.

    The request from Mastel’s lawyer for the emails that candidates sent to the district when they applied was ambiguous, Gundrum wrote, because it could refer to emails to which documents were attached or to the emails and any documents that were attached to them. Mastel’s requests for copies of the candidates’ applications was similarly ambiguous.

    Under Wis. Stat. section 19(35)(1)(h), a request for disclosure is only sufficient – “and thus legally actionable” – if it reasonably describes the record or the information that’s been requested, Gundrum wrote. Because neither of Mastel’s requests reasonably described the declarations of eligibility, the trial court’s grant of the motion to dismiss that portion of Mastel’s petition was proper, the appellate court held.

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    WisBar Court Review, published by the State Bar of Wisconsin, includes summaries and analysis of decisions from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, as well as other court developments. To contribute to this blog, contact Joe Forward.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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