Case Report – Alberta court upholds privacy complaint for disclosure of faculty member merit award

On February 29th, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench affirmed an Alberta OPIC finding that a university had breached the Alberta Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by disclosing a faculty member’s recommended merit increase.

The complaint involved a document circulated within the complainant’s department that included information about the department chair’s annual merit increase recommendations. The document did not include names, but associated merit increase recommendations with data on papers published. The complainant argued that his merit increase was disclosed given that it was associated with data about an unnamed person who had published 37 papers in the year. The university argued that it had only disclosed statistical information.

The Court’s finding is very fact-specific, but does illustrate that whether information is “personal information” – information about an identifiable individual – can depend on the context in which it is published. The Court held that the OIPC reasonably concluded that the data on papers published revealed the complainant’s identity given the size of the department and the complainant’s well known and relatively superior level of academic output.

There are other aspects of the Court judgement that are noteworthy, including the more principled (but not surprising) finding that the document was not excluded from the act as “research information” or “teaching material.”

University of Alberta v. Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner), 2009 ABQB 112 (CanLII).

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