February 11, 2016

Postcard Reminders: Routine Communication or Invasion of Privacy?

The Kansas Department of Children and Family (DCF) has come under scrutiny for sending postcard reminders to individuals obligated to pay monthly child support, rather than mailing reminders in a sealed envelope. While the Kansas practice does not appear to violate individual privacy rights, it could trigger adoption of more “consumer-friendly” alternatives for relaying information. Concerns have focused on the sensitivity of the information included in the reminders and the fact that the information is visible on its face. While at least one recipient has publicly objected to the practice, DCF argues that it did not disclose any private facts since child support records in Kansas are publicly available court documents. Further, any negative inference for a party receiving the postcard reminder is outweighed by public policy promoting access to public records. Given these arguments, it is unlikely that a plaintiff in Kansas, or in most other states, would succeed in a civil action claiming an invasion of privacy under these circumstances.

DCF’s experience serves as a reminder that a selected form of communication can raise consumer privacy and trust issues. While this specific practice may not run afoul of privacy laws, organizations — from health care providers to government agencies — that may use postcard reminders should consider the type of information being provided, who will have access to it, and whether there are privacy implications. They may also consider adopting more “consumer-friendly” mailing alternatives such as sending reminders — particularly about sensitive matters — in standard, sealed envelopes.

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