Interlocutory Appeal Allowed to Protect Student Privacy in Sexual Harassment Case

Another Puerto Rico Supreme Court Privacy Decision:
Díaz Santiago v. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico , 2021 TSPR 79 (6/7/2021)
by Guillermo Figueroa, Esq.

On January 19, 2020, Mr. Xedric Huriel Díaz filed a Complaint under PR Act No. 2 of October 17, 1961 (procedural process for the expeditious adjudication of employment claims in Puerto Rico) against Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (“PUCPR”) alleging that he was wrongfully discharged on false and unfounded claims. On the other hand, Defendant alleged Mr. Díaz was dismissed with just cause following three (3) sexual harassment complaints filed by different students.

As part of the discovery proceedings, by means of interrogatory, Mr. Díaz questioned PUCPR and requested a copy of a complainant student’s university records, copy of her medical records at the Office of Psychological Helpand the Counseling Office, as well as any other record of her gathered. Additionally, Plaintiff requested the identification of the staff that treated the student at the Counseling Office, her conditions and if she was referred for further psychological help. Defendant objected, alleging that such information was confidential and disclosure was contrary to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99.

The Court of First Instance ordered the production of the requested information and Defendant appealed. On June 30, 2020, Court of Appeals issued a Resolution denying issuance of the Writ of Certiorari arguing that the extreme situations that warrant the review of interlocutory determinations in summary proceedings were not present. Likewise, it held that it did not arise from the record that the actions of the Court of First Instance generated a failure of justice; thus they were not facing a grave injustice that warranted intervention.

The Supreme Court determined that, although the summary nature of the proceedings cannot be disproved, the Court of Appeals erred in concluding that in the present case there were no exceptions to the general rule that limits interlocutory review in this type of claim. The actions of the Court of First Instance warranted the timely intervention of the appellate forum, not only to avoid a serious injustice to the PUCPR and to safeguard its compliance with FERPA, but correspondingly to guarantee the three students’ right to education, dignity and equality before the law, and to not suffer abusive attacks on their honor, reputation and life.

The particular circumstances of this case required the Court of First Instance to, instead of ordering the disclosure of all the medical records of the students in the counseling and psychological aid offices, issue the corresponding protective orders to safeguard confidentiality of private information contained in the medical records. A court order authorizing the disclosure of medical records cannot be a blank check, as in the present case, for complete disclosure of records, without substantiating its relevance to the case.