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The University of Texas System v. Paxton

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

April 7, 2017

The University of Texas System and The University of Texas at Dallas, Appellants
v.
Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas; and Marilyn Cameron, Appellees

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 261ST JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-GV-11-001923, HONORABLE STEPHEN YELENOSKY, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Goodwin, and Bourland.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CINDY OLSON BOURLAND, JUSTICE.

         Appellants, the University of Texas System and the University of Texas at Dallas (collectively, "the University") appeal from the trial court's grant of the Attorney General's summary-judgment motion in a case involving the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). See generally Tex. Gov't Code §§ 552.001-.353. The trial court's judgment ordered that the University must disclose the information at issue-the identities of certain persons who agreed to participate as human research subjects in social-science experiments relating to national-security issues. Because we conclude that the Attorney General did not conclusively negate any element of the University's claim that the information is protected by the common-law right to privacy, we will reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment and remand the case for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         The University received a public-information request from appellee Marilyn Cameron seeking several categories of information related to three separate social-science research studies being conducted by a tenured faculty member. The University provided documents that were responsive to some portions of her request, determined that it had nothing responsive to other portions of her request, and deemed certain information to be confidential by law. As required by the PIA, the University requested a letter ruling from the Attorney General on the information that it deemed to be confidential by law; that information was a list of names of participants in one of the social-science research studies.[1] See id. § 552.301 (requiring governmental body that receives request for information that it seeks to withhold under statutory exception to request decision from attorney general about whether information falls within that exception). The University asserted that the identities of the human research subjects who participated in the study are protected from disclosure by PIA Section 552.101, which excepts information from disclosure if it is "considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision." Id. § 552.101.

         The University contended that the common-law and constitutional right to privacy protects the information at issue. The University explained that the individuals' identities neither had been nor would be released as part of any published articles relating to the research at issue. In addition, the individuals had received informed-consent statements indicating that their participation would be kept confidential. The University argued that in Ramie v. City of Hedwig Village, Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that the constitutional right of privacy may protect intimate personal matters outside the traditional "zones of privacy, " unless a legitimate state interest outweighs the threat to the individual's privacy and that the privacy interest "includes the right to be free from the government disclosing private facts about its citizens." See 765 F.2d 490, 492 (5th Cir. 1985). The University also argued that an individual's agreement to participate as a human research subject is a personal matter and that disclosure of the information would be highly offensive to a reasonable person; i.e., disclosure of an individual's participation in the study would constitute a violation of the common-law tort of invasion of privacy.

         The Attorney General issued a letter ruling rejecting those arguments and concluding that the University did not demonstrate that the requested information is protected under the common-law or constitutional right to privacy. See Tex. Att'y Gen. OR2011-17401. The University filed suit against the Attorney General, challenging the letter ruling and seeking a declaration that the requested information is protected by PIA Section 552.101, the common-law and constitutional rights to privacy, and 45 C.F.R. Part 690. See Tex. Gov't Code § 552.324 (authorizing suit by governmental body seeking declaratory relief from compliance with Attorney General decision that information must be disclosed). Marilyn Cameron, the requestor, acting pro se, intervened in the suit. See id. § 552.325(a) (allowing requestor of public information to intervene in suit seeking to withhold information).

         The University and the Attorney General filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court denied the University's summary-judgment motion and granted the Attorney General's summary-judgment motion. The University appeals only the grant of the Attorney General's motion and seeks a remand of the case to allow it to prove at trial that the information qualifies as confidential.

         The PIA

         The PIA's purpose is to provide public access to complete information about government affairs and the official acts of public officials and employees. Tex. Gov't Code § 552.001(a); Jackson v. State Office of Admin. Hearings, 351 S.W.3d 290, 293 (Tex. 2011). In support of this purpose, the PIA directs that it be liberally construed in favor of disclosure of requested information. See Tex. Gov't Code § 552.001(b); Jackson, 351 S.W.3d at 293. When public information is requested from a governmental entity, it must be promptly produced for inspection, duplication, or both, unless the PIA specifically excepts it from disclosure. See Tex. Gov't Code §§ 552.221 (requiring prompt production of public information), .101-.156 (establishing specific exceptions). If no previous determination has been made about the requested information, and the governmental entity contends that a PIA exception applies, the governmental entity must seek a decision from the attorney general about whether the exception applies to the requested information. See id. § 552.301. If the attorney general determines that the requested information must be disclosed to the requestor, the governmental entity may seek declaratory relief from compliance with the decision. See id. § 552.324.

         The governmental entity has the burden of proving in a judicial proceeding that an exception to disclosure applies. Texas Dep't of Pub. Safety v. Abbott, 310 S.W.3d 670, 673-74 (Tex. App.-Austin 2010, no pet.). Exceptions to the PIA should be construed narrowly. See Arlington Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Texas Att'y Gen., 37 S.W.3d 152, 157-58 (Tex. App.-Austin 2001, no pet.) (citing City of Garland v. Dallas Morning News, 22 S.W.3d 351, 364 (Tex. 2000)). Under PIA Section 552.101, information is excepted from disclosure "if it is information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision." Tex. Gov't Code § 552.101. In this case, the University asserts that the requested information is "confidential by law, " based on the common-law and constitutional right to privacy. See generally Industrial Found. of the S. v. Texas Indus. Accident Bd., 540 S.W.2d 668 (Tex. 1976).

         ANALYSIS

         In one issue on appeal, the University asserts that the trial court erred by granting the Attorney General's traditional summary-judgment motion when no evidence was attached to the motion and the motion did not address specific factual issues that precluded the Attorney General from conclusively negating the University's right to relief. The University acknowledges that many PIA cases involve issues that are pure questions of law, but it contends that in this case the application of the exception for information protected by the common-law right to privacy centers on fact-specific questions. ...


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