On Friday July 11, 2008, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that not all governmental boards' closed session discussions are automatically privileged and may be subject to discovery in litigation in Sands v. Whitnall School District. This overturned an earlier ruling from the Court of Appeals.
This case established two important precedents for Wisconsin law:
1.) That materials which are protected under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law are not necesarily protected from discovery in court.
2.) The state of Wisconsin does not possess a deliberative process exemption.
- Sands was hired as an administrator for the Whitnall School district in 1998. After two closed session meetings on April 29 and May 13, 2002, the board decided not to renew Sands contract. She was notified two days later.
- On April 23, 2004, Sands filed a lawsuit claiming she had been denied the 4 month notice to contract termination guaranteed to her as an administrator within the school district.
- The school district denied Sand's claim that she was a true administrator and cited failure to perform as an adequate justification of termination.
- In district court, during discovery, Sands requested documents from the closed meetings at which the district discussed her contract. The district denied the request claiming that the meeting was a closed session and exempt under Wisconsin statute 19.85, and the deliberative process privilege exemption.
- The trial court ruled in favor of Sands and ordered the documents released.
- The Wisconsin Court of Appeals overturned the decision of the trial court and ordered the documents exempt.
- Sands appealed the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Ruling of the court
The trial court determined that the Wisconsin statute allowing exempt meetings was to be narrowly construed and did not apply to the meetings at which the Whitnall School District debated Sands contract. The court also determined that Wisconsin has never acknowledged a deliberative process exemption, and that it could thus not apply.
The court of appeals overturned the decision of the trial court and determined that Wisconsin statute 19.85 stated that meetings held in closed session were protected under open records requests and that the meetings held by the district were rightfully closed meetings.
The Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals, reverting back to the original decision made by the trial court.
The Supreme Court determined that this case fell not under the laws relating to open meetings but more importantly to trial discovery, an essential aspect of maintaining a fair and balanced judicial system. The court determined that none of the exemptions within discovery law applied to the minutes of the closed meetings. The court determined that there was no reason to block discovery opportunity based on the exemptions found in the open meetings act, citing cases in other states as justification, including State ex rel. Upper Republican Natural Resources District v. District Judges of the District Court for Chase County, a case before the Nebraska Supreme Court. The court also rejects the districts attempt to incorporate a deliberative process privilege within Wisconsin law, arguing that the court has not seen fit to in the past and that the current court would not do so either. Based on these two facts, the court determined that while the materials were exempt under the open meetings law, the discovery laws of Wisconsin courts did not afford the meetings the same protection and that they had to be released as evidence for the court.
- ↑ Sands v. Whitnall School District, LexisNexis
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 Supreme Court Opinion