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Matthew M. Hoffman

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Confidentiality Provision of Educator Discipline Act Ruled Unconstitutional

Matthew M. Hoffman, Esq., (412) 594-3910, mhoffman@tuckerlaw.com

John Doe v. Jennifer Schorn, 2024 WL 128210 (E.D. Pa. 2024) (The confidentiality provision of the Educator Discipline Act was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge, precluding criminal charges against a complainant who wished to publish the contents of an educator misconduct complaint and comment on its disposition)

Background

Pennsylvania’s Educator Discipline Act governs educator misconduct complaints filed with the Department of Education for investigation and, if warranted, discipline. 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2070.9. Once a misconduct complaint is filed, PDE “promptly review[s] it and all other complaints and information relating to the educator.” If the facts are not legally sufficient to warrant discipline under the Act, the PDE dismisses the complaint and gives written notice of the dismissal to the complainant and to the educator. If the facts as alleged are legally sufficient to warrant discipline, PDE provides notice and opens an investigation into the allegations.  After completing its investigation, PDE may dismiss the misconduct complaint, determine that the school entity already has imposed sufficient punishment, enter into a settlement agreement with the educator, proceed to alternative dispute resolution, or initiate the formal adjudicatory hearing process by filing charges with the Professional Standards and Practices Commission (the “Commission”). 

The Discipline Act mandates that “all information relating to any complaints or any proceeding relating or resulting from such complaints . . . shall remain confidential, unless or until discipline is imposed.” 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 2070.17b(a); 22 Pa. Code § 233.114(a). The Act provides that the Professional Standards and Practices Commission may order the release of information but can reject a request to make a misconduct complaint public. Without the Commission’s authorization, a person who discloses a complaint or its disposition is subject to a misdemeanor charge.

In June of 2023, an unnamed person (Plaintiff) submitted an educator misconduct complaint relating to an employee of a Bucks County public school district. The online form that Plaintiff used to submit the complaint included a confidentiality notice reminding him that the complaint process is confidential under the Act. A month later, the Plaintiff was advised that his misconduct complaint was dismissed and no further action would be taken. The letter reminded Plaintiff that “any unauthorized release of confidential information is a misdemeanor” under the Act.

The Plaintiff filed a federal court suit against Pennsylvania’s Attorney General (AG) and the Bucks County District Attorney (DA) because he wanted to publicize the complaint and its resolution. He filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, asserting violation of the First Amendment. He sought an injunction to protect himself from criminal prosecution for violating the confidentiality requirement of the Act.

Discussion

The court held that the confidentiality provision of the Act is unconstitutional because on its face it imposes a content-based restriction on speech that does not satisfy the strict scrutiny standard of legal review.

As to the Plaintiff’s challenge, the Act differentiates between disclosure of complaints resulting in discipline, and those that do not. If a complaint results in discipline, confidentiality is, in most cases, lifted and all information regarding the complaint and its disposition are free to be disclosed.  When discipline is not imposed, however, an individual wishing to speak about a misconduct complaint is typically limited to information previously known and information for which the Commission authorizes disclosure. That means that if a complainant, like Plaintiff, wishes to criticize PDE or the Commission for refusing to impose discipline in connection with a misconduct complaint, he or she may do so only if the Commission authorizes disclosure. This distinction between disclosure of claims where the Commission imposes discipline and disclosure of claims where it does not, suggests the Act’s confidentiality provision is at least in part content based. 

To survive strict scrutiny analysis, a statute must: (1) serve a compelling governmental interest; (2) be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest; and (3) be the least restrictive means of advancing that interest.” Here, the government interest identified was “the privacy of students and teachers involved in a confidential administrative process.” The court concluded that the Act appears both over and under inclusive for protecting the identities of the individuals involved in the administrative process. It was considered overinclusive because it does not merely limit the release of names, but instead, broadly prohibits disclosure of any information related to the filing of a complaint. The Act was underinclusive because, when discipline is imposed, the Act allows educators’ and students’ identities and the underlying facts to be released. Thus, the court ruled that the confidentiality provision of the Act was not narrowly tailored to achieve the governmental interest and, therefore, violated Plaintiff’s First Amendment speech rights.

Practical Advice

Unless the district court’s decision is reversed on appeal by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals or the statute is amended by the General Assembly to address the constitutional infirmities found by the district court, individuals can rely upon the court’s ruling that the confidentiality provision of the Educator Discipline Act to disclose information relating to the filing and disposition of educator misconduct complaints. Nonetheless, it would be prudent for school officials to maintain the confidentiality of educator misconduct complaints to avoid creating potential claims for disparagement for which statutory immunity may not be available.

For more information, contact Matt Hoffman at (412) 594-3910 or at mhoffman@tuckerlaw.com.

January 29, 2024

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