Gerstein v. Superintendent Search Screening Committee was a case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1989 concerning employee screening committees and open meetings law.
This case established that the loss of even one candidate due to open meeting interviews qualified as a significant detriment to the search process, enabling the use of closed executive session meetings for interviews.
- In November, 1987, the school committee of Weston created a screening committee to help select the district's new superintendent.
- The committee, as a governing body under the Massachusetts Open Meetings Act held open meetings in December 1987 and January 1988 to review and discuss the 89 resumes they had received. During open meetings in January and Februaray 1988 during open meetings, the committee narrowed the applicants to thirteen individuals, who would be invited for an interview.
- Upon consulting the candidates, the committee determined that holding open interviews would deter candidates from participation, because one candidate threatened to withdraw if her interview was public. As a result, the committee convened closed sessions in order to interview all thirteen candidates pursuant to Massachusetts statute 39, Section 23B which allows closed executive sessions, "[t]o consider and interview applicants for employment by a preliminary screening committee or a subcommittee appointed by a governmental body if an open meeting will have a detrimental effect in obtaining qualified applicants; provided, however, that this clause shall not apply to any meeting, including meetings of a preliminary screening committee or a subcommittee appointed by a governmental body, to consider and interview applicants who have passed a prior preliminary screening."
- The screening committee selected eight individuals to recommend to the school committee. The school committee interviewed the remaining eight candidates in open meetings and selected finalists in open meetings.
- A number of citizens including Gerstein, filed suit, arguing that the screening committee had violated the Massachusetts Open Meetings Act by holding closed meetings. The plaintiffs argued that the exception which allows for closed sessions for interviews in Massachusetts statute 39, Section 23B did not apply because the loss of one candidate was not a sufficient example of the detrimental effect on the application process required by the exemption and that all the candidates had passed a prior screening, eliminating the opportunity to exempt the meetings. Gerstein also argued that because no deliberations occurred during the closed interviews, the failed to qualify as executive sessions which are designed to protect the deliberative process within public meetings.
- The Screening committee maintained that the meetings were exempt under the law.
- The trial court ruled in favor of the committee.
- Gerstein et al. appealed the decision.
Ruling of the court
The trial court ruled in favor of the selection committee, claiming that the loss of one candidate proved appropriate grounds for holding closed interviews.
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the trial court, ruling in favor of the screening committee.
The Supreme Court first determined that the plaintiffs' third contention held no ground because the fact that the executive session law included interviews clearly inplies that the law is meant to apply to all applicable interviews and that the gathering of information about candidates can be included in the deliberative process required of executive sessions. They further concurred with the trial court that the loss of one candidate out of thirteen constituted the very detrimental effect the law was intending to prevent. The court finally agreed that the review of resumes did not qualify as a preliminary screening. Based on these facts, the court ruled in favor of the screening committee.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Ruling of the Court