A State Supreme Court justice has ordered the Southampton School District to turn over documents related to the investigation of former Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina so that he can review them privately and decide whether they should be released to the public, according to an April 11 ruling in a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by the Press News Group.
Justice Daniel Martin gave the district 20 days to turn over to him the “materials of the publicly funded investigation” of Dr. Farina by the Garden City-based firm Jaspan Schlesinger LLP. He will review the documents “in camera,” or in private, to balance “the competing interests between public access on the one hand and an individual’s privacy on the other.” Justice Martin can then decide to make the documents public, redact some information before releasing them, or order that they are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL.
The publishers of The Southampton Press, The East Hampton Press and the website 27east.com filed the lawsuit in State Supreme Court in August 2016, asking the court to compel the school district to release the results of an investigation—paid for with taxpayer dollars—of Dr. Farina, which was conducted earlier that year, and which eventually led to his resignation and a $300,000 payout as part of an agreement in April.
The Press News Group is being represented by media law attorneys Rachel F. Strom and James E. Doherty of the Manhattan-based law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz LLP. The Southampton Association is sharing the cost of the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, the Press argued that the information being sought “unquestionably [involve] matters of significant public concern” and led to Dr. Farina’s decision to resign. It noted that the district’s “blanket refusal” to provide any information violates FOIL. “The significant public interest in such information … overwhelms any possible privacy interests here,” the Press News Group’s attorneys argued.
The Southampton School Board lightly addressed the lawsuit on the district’s website with a statement this week acknowledging the ruling: “The district understands our community members wanting more information. However, we also respect the privacy and are involved in this lawsuit to protect all—district employees and non-employees alike—who participated in the investigation. It is an unfortunate situation for those involved.”
The Press filed a FOIL request in April 2016 for a report resulting from the investigation, but was denied by the district, which cited an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” as the primary reason.
When the School Board accepted Dr. Farina’s resignation, former President Heather McCallion read from a prepared statement that the move was a direct result of the investigation. Ms. McCallion would not go into details about what investigators found, calling that information “confidential and not subject to public disclosure.” Both the district and Dr. Farina agreed to a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement.
Robert Freeman, the executive director for the State Committee on Open Government, has said the school district was wrong in refusing to disclose the findings of the investigation to the Press. Unlike students, who are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, where employees are concerned, “the courts have pretty much said [they] have less privacy than anyone else,” he said, especially when it involves the performance of their official duties.
The Press cited Mr. Freeman’s opinions in its arguments—but Justice Martin noted in his decision this week that the school district did as well. The district noted that Mr. Freeman has also said his office “supports withholding disclosure when unproven allegations are involved.”
Justice Martin also ruled that the plaintiffs are not due court costs and attorneys’ fees. The court has the option of awarding a plaintiff attorneys’ fees in a case in which a municipality has failed to answer a FOIL request in the requisite time, or, as the Press alleges in this case, has unreasonably refused to provide public information.