ST. PAUL (AP) -- The Court of Appeals on Tuesday agreed that a school district violated a former teacher's privacy rights, but it wiped out her $520,000 damage award and ordered a new trial anyway.
Katharine Navarre's lawsuit, against the South Washington County School District, raised fresh questions about the type of employee information that is public under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The award, according to one lawyer involved in the dispute, was Minnesota's largest in a case of its kind.
In ordering a new trial, the appellate court determined that some findings of privacy violations were misguided and the damage award was built on unproven claims.
Navarre sued the district after officials publicly questioned her performance in notices to parents and in comments and documents given to reporters.
Responding to complaints from other teachers, students and parents, school officials placed Navarre on leave in 1997 and notified parents that concerns had been raised about her classroom control and teaching ability.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press obtained the letter and interviewed school leaders about Navarre. Other documents, including some about her employment status, also were released.
After finding that the district violated Navarre's privacy rights, a Washington County jury awarded her $200,000 for an injured reputation, $250,000 for emotional distress and $70,000 for lost income.
Both courts agreed that the district was wrong to provide as much detail as it did about still-pending complaints against her.
As for the award, only a claim of emotional distress withstood the appellate court's scrutiny. But in a new trial, the school district can bring forward evidence to back up its argument that Navarre suffered from pre-existing emotional problems, the court ruled.
Navarre's attorney, Stephen Cooper, still saw the ruling as a victory.
"We don't have to reprove that the statements made were illegal. The Court of Appeals said they were," he said.
The new trial will be an inconvenience to Navarre, but he said the court affirmed boundaries employers must live under when they release information about public workers.
An attorney for the school district declined to comment.
Mark Anfinson, who sided with the district on behalf of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, was pleased the court erased the damage award, which he feared would create a chilling effect on the disclosure of information.
"Public officials are very conservative now about releasing any information that can reflect negatively and critically on public employees," he said. "Our view of this huge jury verdict is it would just put an ice age on disclosures."
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