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Spinelli v. Immanuel Evang. Luth. Cong.

OPINION FILED JUNE 5, 1986.

CAROL SPINELLI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

IMMANUEL EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CONGREGATION, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County; the Hon. Michael J. Sullivan, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE UNVERZAGT DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Defendant, Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, Inc., appeals from an order entered by the circuit court of McHenry County granting summary judgment for plaintiff, Carol Spinelli, on her claim that defendant violated section 2 of "An Act to permit employees to review personnel records * * *" (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, par. 2002) (hereinafter the Act) by its refusal to permit plaintiff to inspect certain documents contained in her personnel file.

The material facts are not in dispute and can be summarized as follows. Defendant operates a Christian church and school in Crystal Lake. Plaintiff was employed as a teacher by defendant under a series of one-year contracts from August 1980 to June 1984. On June 15, 1984, plaintiff's latest employment contract expired, and defendant decided not to renew her contract for the following school year. Thereafter, plaintiff requested to see her personnel file pursuant to section 2 of the Act. Defendant permitted plaintiff to inspect her records with the exception of three letters which defendant withheld on the advice of its attorney. The letters, the contents of which are not contained in the record, were written by parents or teachers and were used by defendant in its decision not to renew plaintiff's employment contract. According to William Scholten, the chairman of the day school committee and a member of the school board, the individuals who wrote the letters had made various comments to him regarding plaintiff. Scholten informed the individuals that in order for the school board to consider the statements in reviewing plaintiff's performance, the statements would have to be in writing, and he gave his assurance that their letters would be held in the strictest confidence.

Following defendant's refusal to turn over the letters for inspection, plaintiff instituted this action pursuant to section 12 of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, par. 2012) *fn1. Both parties moved for summary judgment. Defendant argued that the letters were exempt from disclosure by section 10(c) of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, par. 2010(c)). Further, defendant asserted that if the documents were deemed not to be within the foregoing exception, the statute was unconstitutionally vague.

The trial court granted judgment for plaintiff and ordered defendant to turn over the letters for inspection within 14 days. In addition, the court found that defendant's refusal to permit plaintiff access to the documents constituted a wilful and knowing violation of the Act. Therefore, under the authority of section 12 (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, par. 2012), the court awarded plaintiff $200 and attorney fees of $765.

This appeal requires the court to determine whether the letters contained in plaintiff's personnel file are exempt from disclosure and, if not, whether the statute is so vague and indefinite so as to render it unconstitutional. Additionally, the court must decide whether the trial court erred in finding that the defendant's conduct was a wilful and knowing violation of the Act.

Section 2 of the Act states in relevant part:

"Every employer shall, upon an employee's request * * * permit the employee to inspect any personnel documents which are, have been or are intended to be used in determining that employee's qualifications for employment, promotion, transfer, additional compensation, discharge or other disciplinary action, except as provided in Section 10." (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, par. 2002.)

Plaintiff contends this section clearly compels disclosure of the letters since it is not disputed that they were used by defendant in deciding to fire her as a teacher. The simple answer to this argument is that plaintiff was not fired. The record discloses that plaintiff was employed pursuant to a series of one-year contracts, and that at the expiration of her latest contract defendant reached a decision not to renew her employment for the following school year. Thus, if the letters are subject to disclosure, it must be because they relate to plaintiff's "qualifications for employment." Not knowing the contents of the letters, one must assume that they concern plaintiff's employment qualifications, particularly since defendant readily admits that the letters were used in deciding not to renew plaintiff's employment contract.

Under the unambiguous language of section 2, plaintiff is clearly entitled to inspect the letters in question unless it can be said that they fall within one of the exceptions enumerated in section 10, the pertinent portion of which provides:

"The right of the employee or the employee's designated representative to inspect his or her personnel records does not apply to:

(a) Letters of reference for that employee.

(c) Materials used by the employer for management planning, including but not limited to judgments, external peer review documents or recommendations concerning future salary increases and other wage treatments, management bonus plans, promotions and job assignments or other comments or ratings used for the employer's planning purposes." (Ill. Rev. Stat., 1984 Supp., ch. 48, pars. 2010(a), (c).)

Defendant takes the position that the documents involved here are letters of reference and therefore are not subject to discovery under subsection (a). In support defendant relies on Board of Trustees v. Superior Court (1981), 119 Cal.App.3d 516, 174 Cal. Rptr. 160, wherein the court defined letters of reference as encompassing not merely communications about an individual who is seeking employment but also written communications by one "`to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be ...


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