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Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association v. the Superior Court of Sonoma County

August 26, 2011

SONOMA COUNTY EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT ASSOCIATION, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SONOMA COUNTY, RESPONDENT; THE PRESS DEMOCRAT, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST.



Trial Court: Sonoma County Superior Court Trial Judge: Hon. Mark Tansil (Sonoma County Super. Ct. No. SCV248399)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margulies, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

The trial court ordered the Sonoma County Employees' Retirement Association (SCERA) to disclose to real party in interest, The Press Democrat, the names of all persons receiving SCERA pension benefits, the gross amount of each recipient's benefit, and the recipient's age at retirement. SCERA petitions for a writ of mandate to overturn the trial court's order, contending the information sought is exempt from disclosure under the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937, Government Code section 31450 et seq. (CERL).*fn1 We hold SCERA need not disclose the ages of its benefit recipients at retirement, but it must disclose the names of recipients and the gross amount of each recipient's pension benefits.

I. BACKGROUND

SCERA administers one of twenty defined benefit county employee retirement plans governed by CERL. Active employees and their employer make contributions that SCERA holds in trust, invests, and uses to pay benefits to retirees and beneficiaries pursuant to formulae established by the Legislature for safety and nonsafety county employees. The amount of a retired member's retirement benefit is calculated using a multi-factor formula based upon the individual's status as a public safety officer or general member, age at retirement to the nearest quarter of a year, highest one-year average salary per month, years of county service calculated to two decimal places, purchases of other qualifying service credit, benefit payment option elected, and past postretirement cost of living increases granted.

As required to administer the retirement system, SCERA maintains records for each member, including such information as compensation, years of service, age, addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, marital status, and information pertaining to the member's beneficiaries. SCERA treats these records as confidential based on its interpretation of section 31532 of CERL. Section 31532 provides as follows: "Sworn statements and individual records of members shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed to anyone except insofar as may be necessary for the administration of this chapter or upon order of a court of competent jurisdiction, or upon written authorization by the member." SCERA does not disclose information pertaining to individual members except as it believes it is authorized by one of the exceptions stated in section 31532.

On August 3, 2010, The Press Democrat sent a request to Gary Bei, administrator of SCERA, pursuant to the California Public Records Act (CPRA), section 6250 et seq. The request asked for "[a] list of all individuals receiving SCERA retirement benefits of at least $100,000 annually, including the names of such individuals, the dates of their retirements and their age at the time of retirement." (Italics omitted.) On September 30, 2010, The Press Democrat requested "[a] list of all individuals receiving SCERA retirement benefits [regardless of amounts], including the names of such individuals, the dates of their retirements and their age at the time of retirement." (Italics omitted.) SCERA declined to produce information disclosing retirement allowances linked to individual names and ages at retirement.*fn2

On October 8, 2010, The Press Democrat filed a petition for writ of mandate in the superior court seeking production of the requested records. The trial court ordered the records be produced. SCERA filed this petition for writ of mandate to overturn the trial court's order. (§ 6259, subd. (c).) Pursuant to our requests, The Press Democrat filed opposition to the petition and SCERA filed a reply thereto. We issued an order to show cause and, at the parties' joint request, deemed the previously filed opposition and reply to be the return to the order to show cause and the reply thereto.

II. DISCUSSION

Section 6253 of the CPRA requires public records be produced upon request unless the records sought are made "exempt from disclosure by express provisions of law." (§ 6253, subd. (b).) Section 6254, subdivision (k) exempts from disclosure "[r]ecords, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law . . . ." Section 6255, subdivision (a), often referred to as the "catchall exemption," provides that an otherwise nonexempt record may be withheld if "on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." SCERA contends in this case the records sought by The Press Democrat are exempt from disclosure as "individual records of members" under section 31532 or, in the alternative, the public interest in protecting the privacy rights of retirees and beneficiaries in their financial information outweighs the public's right to know about its government's activities for purposes of section 6255, subdivision (a).

The California Supreme Court has explained the context and purpose of the CPRA as follows: "Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy. 'Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.' [Citation.] In adopting the Act, the Legislature declared that 'access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.' " (International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 319, 328-329 (International Federation).) By voter initiative passed in 2004, the linkage between openness and accountability in government is now explicitly recognized in our state Constitution: "The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business, and therefore, . . . the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny." (Cal. Const., art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(1).)

Statutory exemptions from compelled disclosure under the CPRA are narrowly construed. (Cal. Const., art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(2); City of Hemet v. Superior Court (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 1411, 1425.) The burden of proving a specific statutory exemption applies (or that the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the interest in disclosure) is on the proponent of nondisclosure. (§ 6255, subd. (a); International Federation, supra, 42 Cal.4th at p. 337.) Trial court rulings on CPRA requests are reviewable by petition for writ of mandate. (California State University, Fresno Assn., Inc. v. Superior Court (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 810, 824.) We independently review the application of the statute to undisputed facts. (Ibid.) Where material facts are disputed, we will uphold the trial court's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence. (Ibid.)

A. Exemption for "Individual Records of Members"

The initial question for determination is whether information linking the names of persons receiving SCERA retirement benefits to their gross retirement benefits and their ages at retirement is in whole or in part statutorily protected from disclosure by section 31532. For the reasons discussed below, we hold SCERA is required by the CPRA to disclose the names of persons receiving benefits and their gross benefit amounts, but the statute does not, in our view, compel disclosure of the age of individual retirees at their retirement.

1. Statutory Ambiguity

"The fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the court should ascertain the intent of the Legislature so as to effectuate the purpose of the law." (Select Base Materials v. Board of Equal. (1959) 51 Cal.2d 640, 645.) In determining legislative intent, we look first to the words of the statute itself. (California Teachers Assn. v. San Diego Community College Dist. (1981) 28 Cal.3d 692, 698.) If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no need for construction. (Lungren v. Deukmejian (1988) 45 Cal.3d 727, 735.) But if more than one construction of a statute is semantically permissible, the statute is ambiguous and we may resort to extrinsic sources, including the ostensible objects to be achieved and the legislative history, to determine its meaning. (County of Sutter v. Board of Administration (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1288, 1295-1296; People v. Coronado (1995) 12 Cal.4th 145, 151.) The court may examine the context in which the language appears, adopting the construction that best harmonizes the statute internally and with related statutes. (County of Santa Clara v. Perry (1998) 18 Cal.4th 435, 442.) Both the legislative history of the statute and the wider historical circumstances of its enactment may be considered in ascertaining the legislative intent. (Ibid.) In the particular context of the CPRA, if there is any ambiguity about the scope of an exemption from disclosure, we must construe it narrowly, as noted earlier.

SCERA insists the phrase "individual records of members" has a plain, all-inclusive meaning in section 31532: it refers to "any . . . information pertinent to a particular individual." Thus, SCERA is contending the statute makes all information a retirement board possesses about a particular member confidential, no matter how such information came into its possession or how the information is kept, stored, or used. But while SCERA's interpretation is linguistically plausible, we do not find it is the only plausible interpretation of the statute. An "individual record" could refer to a record that pertains to a single individual only, as opposed to a record grouping or combining information pertaining to more than one individual. On this view, had the Legislature intended to make all information pertaining to a member confidential it would have used the phrase "records of members" without using the qualifier, "individual." A third possible meaning of the phrase would focus on the context in which "individual records" appears--its conjunction with "[s]worn statements" and the fact the words, "of members," seem intended to modify both phrases. Viewed in that light, a grammatically plausible interpretation of the statute is that "individual records of members" means information furnished to the board about the member, either by the member or by a third party (such as the member's employer or physician), rather than all information pertaining to a member. Under this interpretation, proposed by The Press Democrat, information pertaining to individual members generated internally by the retirement board itself, such as its calculation of a retired employee's gross ...


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