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DTH Media Corp. v. Folt

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 17, 2018

DTH MEDIA CORPORATION; CAPITAL BROADCASTING COMPANY, INC.; THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER PUBLISHING COMPANY; THE DURHAM HERALD COMPANY; Plaintiffs,
v.
CAROL L. FOLT, in her official capacity as Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and GAVIN YOUNG, in his official capacity as Senior Director of Public Records for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Defendants.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 20 March 2018.

          Appeal by plaintiffs from order entered 9 May 2017 by Judge Allen Baddour in Wake County No. 16 CVS 14300 Superior Court.

          Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC, by Hugh Stevens, for plaintiff-appellants.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Stephanie A. Brennan, for defendant-appellees.

          Engstrom Law, PLLC, by Elliot Engstrom, for Student Press Law Center, amicus curiae.

          TYSON, JUDGE.

         I. Background

         This Court reviews the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g (2017) ("FERPA"), and the North Carolina Public Records Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 132-1 to -11 (2017) (the "Public Records Act"), to determine whether officials of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ("UNC-CH") are required to release students' disciplinary records, who have been found to have violated UNC-CH's sexual assault policy. The following facts were stipulated to by the parties and adopted by the trial court.

         DTH Media Corporation; Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc.; The Charlotte Observer Publishing Company; and, The Durham Herald Company (collectively, "Plaintiffs"), are North Carolina-based news organizations, which regularly cover events at UNC-CH. The defendants are Carol L. Folt, the Chancellor of UNC-CH, and Gavin Young, the Senior Director of Public Records of UNC-CH (collectively, "Defendants"), who are being sued in their official capacities.

         Plaintiffs sent a public records request to UNC-CH in a letter dated 30 September 2016, asking for "copies of all public records made or received by [UNC-CH] in connection with a person having been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser included sexual misconduct by [UNC-CH's] Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct, or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office."

         UNC-CH denied Plaintiffs' request on 28 October 2016 in a letter signed by Joel G. Curran, UNC-CH's Vice-Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs. Vice-Chancellor Curran concluded the records requested by Plaintiffs are "educational records" as defined by FERPA and are "protected from disclosure by FERPA."

         After denial of their request, Plaintiffs filed a complaint and petitioned for an order to show cause against Defendants on 21 November 2016, under the Public Records Act, and the North Carolina Declaratory Judgments Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 1-253 to -267. Plaintiffs sought, in part: (1) a preliminary order compelling Defendants to appear and produce the records at issue; (2) an order declaring that the requested records are public records as defined by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1; (3) an order compelling Defendants to permit the inspection and copying of public records pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-9(a).

         On 21 December 2016, Defendants filed their answer to Plaintiffs' complaint and petition. Following subsequent communications between the parties, including a mediation conducted pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 78-38.3E, Plaintiffs narrowed the scope of their request to encompass records in the custody of UNC-CH and limited to: "(a) the name of any person who, since January 1, 2007, has been found responsible for rape, sexual assault or any related or lesser included sexual misconduct by the [UNC-CH] Honor Court, the Committee on Student Conduct, or the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office; (b) the date and nature of each violation for which each such person was found responsible; and (c) the sanctions imposed on each such person for each such violation." Defendants stipulated that UNC-CH retains the records sought by Plaintiffs in their narrowed request. The matter was heard in Wake County Superior Court on 6 April 2017. On 9 May 2017, the trial court entered an order and final judgment denying Plaintiffs' request, as it related to students who had been found responsible for serious sexual misconduct. The court granted Plaintiffs' request for records related to UNC-CH employees, who had been disciplined for such offenses.

         The trial court's order and final judgment concluded the Public Records Act does not compel release of student records where "otherwise specifically provided by law." The trial court concluded FERPA "otherwise specifically provides" and grants UNC-CH "discretion to determine whether to release (1) the name of any student found 'responsible' under [UNC-CH's] policy for a 'crime of violence' or 'nonforcible sex offense, ' (2) the violation, and (3) the sanction imposed." Plaintiffs timely filed notice of appeal from the trial court's order and final judgment.

         Defendants complied with that portion of the trial court's order and final judgment relating to records regarding UNC-CH's employees, and both parties agree UNC-CH employees' records addressed in the order and judgment are not at issue on appeal.

         II. Jurisdiction

         Jurisdiction lies in this court over appeal of a final judgment of the superior court in a civil case. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-27(b)(1) (2017).

         III. Issue

         Plaintiffs argue their public record's request for the disciplinary information of UNC-CH students falls within an exemption to FERPA's non-disclosure provisions and Defendants are required to comply with their Public Records Act request.

         IV. Standard of Review

         "Questions of statutory interpretation are questions of law, which are reviewed de novo by an appellate court." In re Proposed Assessments v. Jefferson-Pilot Life Ins. Co., 161 N.C.App. 558, 559, 589 S.E.2d 179, 180 (2003) (citation omitted). This appeal involves questions regarding the interpretation of FERPA and the Public Records Act. We review de novo.

         V. Analysis

         A. North Carolina Public Records Act

         The Public Records Act is codified at N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 132-1 to -11 (2017). The public policy underlying the Public Records Act is enunciated by the General Assembly at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b), which provides, "The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost[.]"

         The Public Records Act "affords the public a broad right of access to records in the possession of public agencies and their officials." Times-News Publ'g Co. v. State of N.C., 124 N.C.App. 175, 177, 476 S.E.2d 450, 451-52 (1996), disc. review denied, 345 N.C. 645, 483 S.E.2d 717 (1997). "[T]he purpose of the Public Records Act is to grant liberal access to documents that meet the general definition of 'public records[.]'" Jackson v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., 238 N.C.App. 351, 352, 768 S.E.2d 23, 24 (2014).

         The Public Records Act defines "public records" to include "all . . . material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(a).

         The Public Records Act permits public access to all public records in an agency's possession "unless either the agency or the record is specifically exempted from the statute's mandate." Times-News, 124 N.C.App. at 177, 476 S.E.2d at 452 (emphasis supplied). "Exceptions and exemptions to the Public Records Act must be construed narrowly." Carter-Hubbard Publ'g Co., Inc. v. WRMC Hosp. Operating Corp., 178 N.C.App. 621, 624, 633 S.E.2d 682, 684 (2006) (citation omitted), aff'd, 361 N.C. 233, 641 S.E.2d 301 (2007).

         Here, the trial court correctly determined that the UNC-CH student disciplinary records requested by Plaintiffs are "public records" as defined by the Public Records Act at N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b). Neither party contests the trial court's determination and conclusion that the records at issue are "public records" under the Public Records Act. Also, neither party disputes that UNC-CH is a public agency of North Carolina and is subject to the Public Records Act. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 132-1(b).

         B. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

         The Congress of the United States enacted FERPA in 1974 "under its spending power to condition the receipt of federal funds on certain requirements relating to the access and disclosure of student educational records." Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 278, 153 L.Ed.2d 309, 318 (2002). "The Act directs the Secretary of Education to withhold federal funds from any public or private 'educational agency or institution' that fails to comply with these conditions." Id. FERPA provides, in part, that:

No funds shall be made available under any applicable program to any educational agency or institution which has a policy or practice of permitting the release of education records (or personally identifiable information contained therein . . .) of students without the written ...

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