Public Records Law

Granting a motion for rehearing, the First District reconsidered its prior opinion concerning what constitutes a “student record” under the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), Title 20 U.S.C. s. 1232g, and the exemption to the public records law for a student’s “education records.”  Rhea v. The District Board of Trustees of Santa Fe College, — So. 3d —, 2013 WL 950544 (Fla. 1st DCA March 13, 2013).

This exemption provides that “[a] public postsecondary educational institution may not release a student’s education records without the written consent of the student to any individual …, except in accordance with and as permitted by the FERPA.”  See Section 1006.52(2), Fla. Stat.   FERPA protects “education records” which include “those records, files, documents, and other materials which … (i) contain information directly related to a student and (ii) are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a person acting for such agency or institution.” Title 20 U.S.C. s. 1232g(a)(4)(A)(i)-(ii).

The dispute arose when a state college instructor was not rehired and he alleged that this due to a complaint the college received from a student about the instructor.  In response to a request for a copy of the complaint, the instructor was provided a redacted copy with the student-complainant’s name deleted.  The instructor sued the college for an unredacted copy of the complaint, claiming that neither the Florida’s public records law nor FERPA exempted this information from disclosure.

The trial court dismissed the complaint “finding that a student’s email to the College complaining about an instructor’s performance in the classroom is an education record in its unredacted form, i.e., with the name of student author revealed, and thus is protected from disclosure by Florida and federal law.”

In its initial decision, the First District of Appeal concluded “that the applicable statutes and related case law demonstrate that the unredacted email is not an education record, because it is not directly related to a student.  Instead, it is directly related to an instructor and only tangentially related to a student.”  In its initial decision, the First District reversed the trial court holding that the unredacted email was an not education record.

In its opinion following the state college’s motion for rehearing, the First District concluded that the unredacted email was an “education record,” exempt from disclosure. The Court “reject[ed] any suggestion that a record cannot relate directly both to a student and to a teacher.  If a record contains information directly related to a student, then it is irrelevant under the plain language of FERPA that the record may also contain information directly related to a teacher or another person.”  In order for an employee record to be removed from the ambit of the definition of an education record, the Court stated “those employee records must relate exclusively to the employee in his or her capacity as an employee.”

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