Appointed ad hoc Judge Anne Simon, a retired district court judge from New Iberia, ruled the contents of the personnel file of a Fourth Judicial District Court law clerk accused of destroying or mishandling court documents was not subject to public disclosure.
Simon ruled that Fourth Judicial District Court Chief Judge Stephens Winters’ refusal to release the documents concerning law clerk Allyson Campbell was proper.
“After weighing the public records disclosure interest against the privacy interest of the employee in question, it is the opinion of the court that the employee in question has an expectation of privacy in the documents,” Simon wrote.
Simon’s ruling was made available last week. It came on the heels of a court hearing that Simon presided over last month after the state Supreme Court appointed her an ad hoc judge to hear arguments on whether portions of Campbell’s personnel file should be made available to The Ouachita Citizen. The Fourth Judicial District Court sued The Ouachita Citizen two months ago, seeking a declaratory judgment in the court’s dispute with the newspaper over the personnel file. The Ouachita Citizen submitted a host of public records requests concerning the Fourth Judicial District Court’s activities.
Simon’s ruling is available online at www.ouachitacitizen.com.
The Ouachita Citizen’s attorney, Scott Sternberg, said, "While we disagree, we respect the judge’s ruling. We are considering our options regarding appeal of this matter."
Sternberg, of the New Orleans law firm Baldwin Haspel Burke & Mayer, also represents the Louisiana Press Association (LPA) on First Amendment and public records matters. The Ouachita Citizen and its sister newspapers, the Concordia Sentinel and The Franklin Sun, are members of the LPA.
The Ouachita Citizen’s investigation into allegations that Campbell had shredded court records and used others as an end table in her office stemmed from reviewing public documents filed in an ongoing civil proceeding, Stanley R. Palowsky, III versus Brandon W. Cork, et al, in Fourth Judicial District Court. The allegations were levied by Covington attorney Joe Ward.
Earlier this year, the state Legislative Auditor’s Office released a financial audit stating some court employees may have collected paychecks for unworked hours during the July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 fiscal year.
Campbell clerks for Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Wilson Rambo.
Accusations that Campbell had destroyed or withheld records were outlined in a motion to recuse Rambo from presiding over Palowsky’s lawsuit against Cork. Palowsky sued Cork and others in a dispute involving a company co-owned by Palowsky and Cork. Palowsky’s attorneys, Ward and Sedric Banks of Monroe, filed a motion to recuse Rambo from the lawsuit based on the claim that Rambo had showed bias in favor of the defendants. Rambo denied exhibiting bias but ultimately stepped aside.
“Information surfaced of Judge Rambo’s law clerk withholding and shredding court documents and causing delays in the present litigation,” wrote Ward in his motion to recuse Rambo. “Still, other information surfaced about Judge Rambo’s law clerk delaying scores of writ applications and had, actually, used such court records as an end table in her office.”
After The Ouachita Citizen first submitted a public records request on the matter, the newspaper found that Campbell’s 2014 time sheets showed she did not work and was not paid during the month of May 2014. The district court refused to release any information or state why she was absent from work that month. Campbell’s time sheets for 2014 show she kept her time in handwriting through April. She was absent from work during May and, when she returned in June, she was punching a time clock.
The documents requested by The Ouachita Citizen included any commendations or reprimands contained in Campbell’s personnel file; reports of any disciplinary actions or reprimands taken against any employees who received pay or leave time for which they were not entitled; any documents showing the reasons why Campbell was out during May; and any document filed by Monroe attorney Cody Rials at the request of Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Wendell Manning concerning missing files or the destruction of court records by Campbell.
The district court provided Simon with a copy of those documents to review in camera, or in private.
In her ruling, Simon said she had reviewed each and every document in the personnel file, and found them to be similar to other documents protected by prior rulings concerning the release of public records.
“There are strong, and reasonable, public policy benefits to preserving the privacy of employee personnel records,” Simon wrote.
The public’s right to know did not trump the privacy interests of Campbell, a public employee, since The Ouachita Citizen did not argue on the basis of any authority or case law indicating that a public employee’s status as the subject of news stories justifies lowering their right to privacy, according to Simon. Simon also said there was “no authority for assigning the supervisory task to the press” when a public employee is accused of misconduct.
“The expectation of privacy of the employee is the type which society at large is prepared to recognize as reasonable both from the point of view of the employee, who is entitled to safeguarding his/her reputation, and the point of view of the employer, who needs the protection in order to foster reporting, management, and fair supervision of employees,” Simon wrote.
Campbell writes a social column for The News-Star called “On the Town,” with co-writer Gregory Hudgins. According to Ward’s motion to recuse Rambo, Campbell has commended in some of her columns her “first boss” — Judge Milton Moore — who now serves on the Second Circuit Court of Appeal as well as attorney Thomas Hayes with Hayes, Harkey, Smith & Cascio, a Monroe law firm. Ward’s motion claims Campbell wrote admiringly of both Moore and Hayes during a case involving both men.
“Campbell has also written recently about how she loves to be the ‘direct cause’ of or ‘barreling toward the heart of a juicy, ripe scandal,’” Ward’s motion stated. “In her ‘Modern Guide to Handle Your Scandal,’ she even instructs her readers to send out ‘lies, half-truths, gorilla dust, whatever you’ve got’ when involved in a scandal.’”
Ward’s motion also claimed photographs on Campbell’s Facebook page, viewable by the public, “appear to indicate that she not only does her job outside of the courthouse, but also that she drinks alcohol while doing so.”
“Campbell has also talked in her column about a Young Lawyer’s Society happy hour at a local bar in which she, though not a lawyer, and others ‘soldiered on with cocktails and much talk about our love of the law,’” Ward’s motion stated. “In that same article, she talked about how there was ‘gossip — lots and lots of gossip,’ and how she had the ‘best time catching up with’ Judge Moore, who looked ‘debonair’ that night.”