The Nevada Supreme Court has denied a petition to rehear an October decision that ordered the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) to disclose the benefits of state employees.
In October, the Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), which filed a public-records request seeking the names, salaries, dates of retirement, years of service, and cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) of public retirees.
“Five years of efforts by Nevada’s Public Employees Retirement System to evade the transparency requirements of state law took a heavy body blow this week,” John Tsarpalas, president of NPRI, wrote in a blog post. “The high court had ordered PERS to provide the data to Nevada Policy,” he added. “The PERS board, however, decided that, rather than comply, it would instead just petition the justices for a rehearing on the same grounds the justices had already rejected.”
The case stems from when the NPRI submitted a public records request to PERS seeking payment records of its government retirees, including retiree names, for fiscal year 2014. Although PERS previously disclosed the requested information to NPRI for 2013, the retirement system refused to disclose the requested information for 2014. It argued that because the raw data for 2014 no longer contained the names of its government retirees, only redacted social security numbers, it had no legal obligation to create a new document to satisfy NPRI’s request.
NPRI filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in district court seeking retiree names, payroll amounts, dates of retirement, years of service, last employer, retirement type, original retirement amount, and COLA increases. A writ of mandamus is an order for a government official to properly fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse of discretion. NPRI asserted that the requested information was not confidential because it was a public record, and easily accessible through an electronic search of the PERS database.
Following an evidentiary hearing, the district court agreed that the requested information was not confidential, and that the risks posed by disclosure did not outweigh the benefits of the public’s interest. It also ruled that PERS had a duty to create a document with the requested information. However, the district court ordered PERS to produce only retiree name, years of service credit, gross pension benefit amount, year of retirement, and last employer.
The NPRI’s case was based on the Nevada Public Records Act, which was intended to “foster democratic principles by providing members of the public with access to inspect and copy public books and records to the extent permitted by law.”
The Act provides that “unless otherwise declared by law to be confidential, all public books and public records of a governmental entity must be open at all times during office hours to inspection by any person.”
In its October ruling, the Nevada Supreme Court cited the 2011 case Reno Newspapers, Inc. v. Gibbons, in which the court said that the public records act’s “provisions must be liberally construed to maximize the public’s right of access,” and that “any limitations or restrictions on [that] access must be narrowly construed.”
The Court said that to allow PERS to prevent the public from inspecting otherwise validly requested government information would contravene the plain language and purpose of the Nevada Public Records Act.
“We conclude that searching PERS’ electronic database for existing and nonconfidential information is not the creation of a new record and therefore affirm the district court’s order in this regard,” said the Court in its October ruling.
However, it also said that because PERS may no longer be able to obtain the requested information as it existed in the 2014 database, it ordered the district court to determine an appropriate way for PERS to comply with the request.