Washington Appeals Court Affirms Sex Offenders’ Right to Keep Health Care Information Private

John Doe v. Department of Corrections (2017)

The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division One, has affirmed the lower court’s rulings in a class action law suit, holding that alternative sentencing evaluations of current and former sex offenders are exempt from release under the Public Records Act (PRA). Because each evaluation must include a diagnosis of the offender’s mental conditions, the evaluations qualify as confidential health care information under Washington’s Uniform Health Care Information Act (UHCIA). Unless this confidential information is redacted, the evaluations are exempt from PRA disclosure.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the plaintiffs’ right in this case to use pseudonyms, such as “John Doe,” in the litigation. The court found that, under the particular circumstances, the use of pseudonyms was appropriate and did not violate the Washington State Constitution.

Background of the Case

What is the Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative?

The Washington State Legislature enacted the Special Sex Offender Sentencing Alternative (SSOSA) in 1981. Under SSOSA, first time sex offenders who qualify receive a suspended prison sentence, and the court instead imposes certain conditions, including treatment and a term of community custody. To qualify, the offender must be examined by a state-certified sex offender treatment provider, who determines a plan of treatment based on the offender’s background, history, social and economic circumstances, and psychological condition.

Donna Zink’s Public Records Request to the Department of Corrections

In July 2014, Donna Zink made a public records request for all SSOSA evaluation reports “maintained, in the possession of or owned by the Washington State Department of Corrections from January 1, 1990 to the present.” In response, the Department of Corrections promised to produce the reports after reviewing each one to determine if it contained exempt information.

The plaintiffs in this case are all current or former Level I sex offenders (offenders deemed to pose the lowest risk to the public) who underwent SSOSA evaluations. The plaintiffs (all going by some variation of the pseudonym “John Doe”) filed this action to prevent the Department of Corrections from releasing their SSOSA evaluation reports.

The trial court first granted a preliminary injunction against the Department of Corrections, keeping it from releasing the reports. The court also allowed the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms. Later, the trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, finding that RCW 71.05.445 protected the reports from disclosure, and permanently prohibited the Department of Corrections from fulfilling Ms. Zink’s request. Ms. Zink and the Department of Corrections appealed.

How the Appellate Court ANALYZED the Issues

Health Care Information is Safe from Disclosure Under the Public Records Act

The Washington State Public Records Act requires state agencies to make records “available for public inspection and copying” unless the records qualify for an exemption that prohibits disclosure.

The plaintiffs in this case asserted that the Public Records Act exempts the SSOSA reports Zink requested under the exemption for patients’ health care information. This exemption incorporates the confidentiality provisions of Washington’s Uniform Health Care Information Act (UHCIA), which protects health care information and information about mental health services. The UHCIA prohibits disclosure of “health care information about a patient” without the patient’s consent. For the purposes of the exemption, “health care information” is “any information. . . that identifies or can readily be associated with the identity of a patient and directly relates to the patient’s health care.”

The Court of Appeals held that information in SSOSA evaluation reports is confidential under the UHCIA and exempt under the PRA since the offenders receiving the evaluations are “patients” entitled to protection and the reports identify offenders by name. They also contain medical, mental health, substance abuse, and sexual histories; results of physical and psychological tests; amenability to treatment; and information about the offenders’ families. They therefore directly relate to offenders’ health care.

Pseudonyms are Appropriate When Exposing Plaintiffs’ Real Names is Problematic

In Ms. Zink’s separate appeal, she contended that the trial court improperly sealed court records by allowing the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms instead of their real names. The appeals court disagreed with her. Ms. Zink argued that First Amendment guarantees are at stake when a court restricts public scrutiny of its proceedings. However, the Supreme Court of Washington State has noted that “a plaintiff may proceed under a pseudonym to protect a privacy interest.” In this case, the appeals court agreed with the plaintiffs that compelling them to use their real names would greatly hinder the court’s ability to protect the privacy of the plaintiffs’ health care information.

The court found that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a significant risk of harm if their identities were disclosed, and also that the individual names “have little bearing on the public’s interest in the dispute or its resolution.” Allowing the plaintiffs to retain their anonymity would have no effect on the Department of Corrections’s ability to defend against the law suit. Finally, the appeals court found that the plaintiffs’ interests in anonymity outweighed the public’s interest in knowing their names.