A former assistant professor at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) has won his lawsuit against his former employer over disclosure of information in relation to former UTT President Dr Sarim Al-Zubaidy.
Delivering a judgement, late last week, High Court Judge Carol Gobin upheld Dr Kumar Mahabir’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit over the information, which he claims is needed to defend a pending defamation case brought against him by Dr Al-Zubaidy.
Dr Mahabir, who was among the university’s academic staff that lost their jobs due to financial constraints in 2018, requested the disclosure of Dr Al-Zubaidy’s resignation letter, information on the basis/reason for his resignation, his last employment contract and information on what payments he received from the UTT after his resignation.
Responding to his FOIA request, the university claimed that it was exempted from disclosing the documents and information as such constituted personal information.
In her judgement, Gobin rejected the additional claim that Dr Mahabir could have requested the information in his ongoing lawsuit with Dr Al-Zubaidy.
She said that UTT’s rationale was unlawful as the FOIA did not provide for such an exemption.
“The information is either disclosable under the FOIA or is not. In other words, it is immaterial that the information may be required for use in those pending defamation proceedings,” Gobin said.
While Gobin admitted that while some of the information may be considered personal information under the legislation, she noted that the university did not properly state why it took the stance.
“If it intends to rely on an exemption, the Defendant is statutorily bound to bring itself clearly within the specified exception or exceptions,” Gobin said.
“It is insufficient for a public authority to regurgitate the terminology of Section 30 as the Defendant did here,” she added.
Gobin also noted that UTT failed to consider Section 35 of the FOIA which permits the disclosure of exempt information if there is sufficient public interest favouring such.
She ruled that based on the evidence in the case the provision favouring disclosure applied to Dr Al-Zubaidy’s contract and remuneration upon resignation.
“The UTT is funded by the taxpayers of T&T. The term of a contract of any office holder, including the pecuniary benefits and termination payments, in the absence of some compelling argument (and none has been made), is information that I consider should be disclosed in the public interest,” Gobin said.
Gobin said that such disclosure in the interest of transparency may help improve public trust and confidence in the institution.
“It may well go some way to restoring any such loss that may have occurred due to events reported in the public domain in the not too distant past,” Gobin said.
As part of her ruling, Gobin ordered the disclosure of information related to the contract and resignation remuneration.
She remitted the decision on disclosure of the resignation letter and reason for resignation to the UTT.
UTT may still decline disclosure but must follow the detailed process identified in the judgement.
The university was also ordered to pay Dr Mahabir’s legal costs for bringing the lawsuit.
Dr Mahabir, who was appointed as an anthropologist with the University of Guyana in June, was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Jared Jagroo, Natasha Bisram and Che Dindial.
Stephen Singh and Amanda Adimoolah represented the UTT.