Appeals Court Rules State Can Release Records on Businesses with COVID-19 Cases

On Monday, April 5, a three-judge panel from the District IV Court of Appeals ruled against Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and in favor of Governor Tony Evers, his administration, and the media in a case involving information about businesses whose employees have contracted COVID-19. The lawsuit was filed in October 2020 in Waukesha County Circuit Court by WMC, the state’s largest business association, as well as two local chambers of commerce.

WMC filed the lawsuit after Gov. Evers’ administration informed the organization that the Department of Health Services (DHS) planned to release the names of more than 1,000 businesses that have had at least two employees test positive for COVID-19, including employees who had not actually been at the employer’s facility. The governor’s administration stated that the information was being released in response to public records requests from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. While not named in the original lawsuit, the newspaper was allowed to intervene in the case as a defendant.

After the suit was filed, the court issued a temporary restraining order to block the release of information while the case proceeded. On November 30, the court extended the restraining order and denied motions from the state and the Journal Sentinel to dismiss the case. The state and the Journal Sentinel appealed the denial of their motions to dismiss; those appeals were consolidated into one case by the appellate court.

WMC has argued that the information cannot legally be released because it was derived from confidential medical records. The association also argued that the release would violate the privacy interests of any named business. However, the District IV Court of Appeals held that WMC’s arguments could not overcome a general prohibition under state law against court challenges to the release of public records. The appeals court reversed the circuit court’s decision and returned the case with instructions to dismiss the lawsuit and vacate the restraining order.

There is a 30-day window from the date of the appellate decision to when the case returns to circuit court, at which time the injunction would be lifted. However, WMC has indicated it will appeal the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. An appeal could keep the injunction in place until the state’s highest court decides whether to take the case and, if it does, until the court issues its own decision.