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Advisory Opinions: Confidential
Advisory Opinions


Date: August 17, 2023

SUBJECT:  Confidentiality of Documents in Personnel Investigation 

This opinion is in response to a question raised with the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) concerning the confidentiality of certain personnel records under Chapter 22.  Advisory opinions may be adopted by the board pursuant to Iowa Code section 23.6(3) and Rule 497–1.2(2): “[t]he board may on its own motion issue opinions without receiving a formal request.”  We note at the outset that IPIB’s jurisdiction is limited to the application of Iowa Code chapters 21, 22, and 23, and rules in Iowa Administrative Code chapter 497.  Advice in a Board opinion, if followed, constitutes a defense to a subsequent complaint based on the same facts and circumstances.

Is a document collected during a personnel investigation of a public official containing the internet browsing history that was conducted on a private computer, a confidential record under Iowa Code 22.7(11)(a)?

The question in this matter is whether a document collected during a personal investigation of an employee is confidential under Iowa Code § 22.7(11). Section 22.7(11)(a) states that “[p]ersonal information in confidential personnel records of government bodies relating to identified or identifiable individuals who are officials, officers, or employees of the government bodies” is confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court, by the lawful custodian of the records, or by another person duly authorized to release such information.

The confidentiality afforded under § 22.7(11) is categorical. Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids, 926 N.W.2d 222, 234 (Iowa 2019) (stating that § 22.7(11) offers categorical protection from disclosure, in contrast with the qualified protection afforded under § 22.7(5)). This means that if the information requested fits into the category of information protected by the statute, then that information is confidential, and no further inquiry is required. ACLU v. Atlantic Community School District, 818 N.W.2d 231, 235 (Iowa 2012). The category of information protected under § 22.7(11) is “personal information in confidential personnel records.” Id. at 233.

The court has previously defined what types of documents fit within the category of “personal information in confidential personnel records.” For example, in Des Moines Independent Community School District v. Des Moines Register & Tribune, the court held that investigative files related to concerns about a school principal contained in an employee’s personnel file were essentially performance evaluations, which are confidential under § 22.7(11). 487 N.W.2d 666, 670 (Iowa 1992). In ACLU v. Atlantic Community School District, the court stated that disciplinary records and information regarding discipline in employee files “are nothing more than in-house job performance records or information.” 818 N.W.2d at 235. Records and information regarding disciplinary measures were, therefore, categorically exempt under Iowa Code § 22.7(11)(a) as they fit within the category of “personal information in confidential personnel records.” Id.

Here, the documents at issue were developed as part of an internal investigation of an employee’s work performance conducted by a government entity’s human resources and outside legal counsel. The investigation showed that the internet browsing history was inadvertently transferred to the work device when the device was connected to a private internet router. At no point was the employee found to have violated policy, nor were they disciplined.

The court has repeatedly held that records related to an employee’s job performance are considered “personal information in confidential personnel records” and are therefore protected under § 22.7(11). In analyzing confidentiality under § 22.7(11), the court has not held or otherwise indicated that this section protects only “negative” job performance information or information that ultimately leads to employee discipline. Under the court’s interpretation of “personal information in confidential personnel records,” any records in the personnel file of the employee related to job performance are protected from disclosure under § 22.7(11), which would include positive or exculpatory performance records.

Daniel Breitbarth
Joan Corbin
E.J. Giovannetti
Barry Lindahl
Joel McCrea
Monica McHugh
Julie Pottorff
Jackie Schmillen

Erika Eckley, J.D.
Executive Director
Iowa Public Information Board