TDCAA TDCAA Community Civil GA-0519 Social Security Numbers in ALL County Clerk records ARE CONFIDENTIAL
This opinion effectively shuts down operations of many if not most county clerks because they will not have the staff or resources, from a practical matter, to properly administrate the limited viewing or releasing of just those documents that contain social security numbers. County Clerks do not organize documents by whether they have a social security number or not. This shuts down the public from viewing the computer terminals, the old-fashionned books, etc. because there may be social security numbers in there. It prevents county clerks from releasing documents to title companies, etc. Tell me I am totally misreading this opinion or that a court case exists that trumps the precedential value of this opinion.
It seems to me that the Opinion and the statute that it interprets only apply to requests made under the Public Information Act. I think that the books and probably computer terminals would still be open for inspection; otherwise, this addition to the PIA forecloses the operation of statutes making those records open to the public.
I do not think that clerk's offices are going to like this when it is applied to the CDs full of imaged documents that they sell to abstract companies and others on a monthly basis. If the original cannot be redacted, then the redaction would either have to be made on a copy that is imaged or would have to be made electronically, which will involve some work.
I just read the opinion after a frantic call from my county clerk and I think caution is needed until this thing is sorted out.
According to the AG to comply with both the PIA and Property Code the County Clerk must "redact SSN's from the copies of records made available to the public." I'm confused. Do they mean any copies provided to the public must be redacted or do they mean that the SSN's must be hidden from any public viewing i.e. going to her office and looking through the books?
Applying the AG's reasoning in Sec. V if you have to redact for the Internet, then you would have to redact from any records accessible on site as well. Right? Any other thoughts?
I am going to go now and try to calm my clerk down.
By the way Geoff, I agree the practical effects of this could be very disruptive to a lot of businesses.
[This message was edited by John Dodson on 02-23-07 at .]
You might want to check with Dana DeBeauvoir, Travis County District Clerk. She had to deal with this issue a few months back.
We have heard that the clerks and county groups plan to seek a legislative solution to this problem ASAP (although I don't know the details of it yet). If they do, I will try to keep everyone posted on its progress; I'd hate to have folks prosecuting their clerks for something that may not be illegal 3 months from now.
I think they mean that you have to redact the SSN from any document that you allow the public to view. In other words, the public cannot go into the county clerk's office and look through the record books. They would have to request a copy of a specific document and then the clerk would have to redact it before they can view it. I guess the long run answer would be to spend a fortune making copies of all records, redacting the SSN's from these copies, and allowing the public access to these records.
We are meeting today to determine how to address this. I hope that everyone will share what their counties are going to do.
For 10 to 15 years SS #s were mandated for every divorce, probate and many other documents. They were also commonly put on oil and gas leases. So the legislature has created a giant of millions of SS#s by their own design. So now they want the counties to be giant killers. In my small county (6,000) the vault where the old paper and ink deed records are kept there are usually 2-3 landmen set up combing titles. I cannot imagine how long that business will be curtailed and how much "giant killing" expense will be involved. I suspect a lot of tea will be tossed in the harbor on this one by 254 County Clerks and by petroleum landmen and other title people.
As an aside, our local title company has a complete set of all the documents in the courthouse which can be had for $1 a page. So as far as old records the horse is already out of the barn; so why worry about closing the gate?
John Hutchison C.A. Hansford County, Spearman
What weight are these opinions given in the civil arena? I know on the criminal side they are advisory or persuasive and in my experience largely ignored by the courts of appeals.
I found the following on the Social Security Administration's Web Page
[I]Q19: How many Social Security numbers have been issued since the program started?
A: Social Security numbers were first issued in November 1936. To date, over 420 million different numbers have been issued.
I assume therefore that records filed prior to November, 1936, cannot contain Social Security Numbers, and nothing need be done about them.
I agree with J.L.H.'s analysis. Well-stated! First, make the inclusion of SSN mandatory, then abolish disclosure of SSN. This certainly throws a wrench into "open records", doesn't it?
My County Clerk just reported that of all the documents they'd checked so far, none have had social security numbers. However, we had to stop talking because he just got a walk-in with FOUR PAGES of volume & page lists to be looked up.
Hamilton County does not have a website for its real estate records. Currently, employees of the Clerk's Office are required to stand by anyone looking at the real estate volumes in County Clerk's Office, based on the AG's Opinion.
I am thinking of filing a declaratory judgment action in Hamilton County. Does anyone have any thoughts?
[This message was edited by HamiltonCountyAtt on 02-26-07 at .]
First, we don't have a web presence. However, we do have a fair amount of use of the computer terminals, largely by researchers we know. We are attaching a notice to each terminal concerning the opinion and explaining that, rather than deny use of the system or slow their work by copying and redacting any page they wish to reference, the copying of SSNs is strictly prohibited. If need be, we will examine the researcher's notes to insure that there are no numbers in it. Violation of this trust would lead to revocation of computer privileges and having to wait for copies to be made.
It isn't perfect by a long shot; but we don't have the manpower to shut the system down and don't want to spend the $$ to have the computer records changed before the dust settles (this is west Texas,after all....we're used to dust storms!)
Lisa L. Peterson
Nolan County Attorney
This is going to cause a mess. People in the title insurance busienss are telling me that it may be possible that closings will come to a screeching halt.
I have advised our clerk to redact social security numbers from any copy of any document that leaves her office, whether by paper or electronic means.
The two abstract companies in town pay to have a CD of all images made each day. So do a couple of outfits that buy electronic versions of records and sell them to third parties. I have advised her to remove any images that contain SSNs from the CDs prior to sending them out and to make redacted paper copies of any documents that have SSNs in them.
I have told her for the time being not to worry about someone simply looking in the records or at the electronic images. As I re-read the AG opinion and look at the PIA some more, I am not sure that is sound advice.
The AG opinion directly concerns county clerk duties, but wouldn't the decision also implicate requests upon district clerks, sheriff's offices, etc?
Also, do you interpret the decision to implicate only official, written PIA requests, or do you interpret it to affect any individual who saunters into the clerk's office (including one of us) and asks to look at a file or document?
My thought would be that it impacts any PIA applicable document requested by any person from any agency.
As I recall, judicial records are not PIA records, right? Isn't there an exception for those?
Lisa L. Peterson
Nolan County Attorney
Yes, I think Footnote 7 to the opinion pretty much says, "If it isn't now - it will be" with regard to all PIA requests.
I've advised our County Clerk that he shouldn't let people come in and just look at the books without screening, because the only person with a "special right of access" is the owner or authorized representative of the owner of the SSN. Any other person would be a "member of the public".
I think as a prosecutor the ruling affects me also. I have an open file policy, but if I read the AG Opinion correctly, I may not "disclose" a SNN except to the person who has that SSN or his designated agent (i.e., attorney of record). That takes care of defendants. But our files also include SSNs of victims, witnesses, and co-denfendants. Accordingly, until we get this thing figured out, or the legislature acts (which I don't think will happen), I am going back to a closed file policy and redacting if necessary.
I cannot see how this opinion applies to a County or District Attorney's Open File policy.
The opinion addresses PIA requests and County Clerk's records. An open file policy is not a PIA request and a county or district attorney is not a county clerk. Therefore, how does this opinion apply at all?
My reading of the opinion goes something like this.
-There are many statutes, both federal and state, that forbid the release of SSN's because they are confidential.
-There were numerous situations under the PIA specifically in which SSN's were not to be disclosed.
-Before 552.147(a), absent some legislative requirement that SSN's be kept confidential, a governmental body had to release the SSN under the PIA.
-552.147(a) closes this gap AS IT APPLIES TO PIA's. Now, IN RESPONSE TO A PIA REQUEST, a governmental body cannot disclose a SSN because it is confidential under the PIA.
-552.147 deals specifically with the PIA and has nothing to do with Open file policies at D.A.'s offices. A fair reading of the opinion would lead to the conclusion that now, in response to a PIA request, thou shalt not disclose a SSN. However, in any other circumstance, you have to look to specific laws that would disallow the disclosure of the SSN. If there is no law disallowing the release of the SSN, then it may be disclosed.
Correct me if I am wrong, but there is no law that forbids a CA or DA from keeping SSN's in offense reports or witness statements that the defense bar can look at or copy. Just my thoughts.
[This message was edited by Steve Lilley on 02-27-07 at .]
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