7 Top Appellate Court Decisions in 2016

These are some of the most significant appellate court decisions issued in 2016 regarding Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

PSEA v. OOR
148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Article I, Section 1, of the state constitution protects personal information such as home addresses. When a record contains such personal information, a balancing test must be performed to determine whether the interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in privacy.

Commonwealth v. Engelkemier
148 A.3d 522 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016)

On the issue of specificity, the Commonwealth Court affirmed an OOR Final Determination which held that a keyword list can be sufficient to describe the subject matter in a RTK request, depending on the overall context of the request. The court emphasized the three-part test used to determine whether a request is specific enough under the RTKL, examining the extent to which the request sets forth (1) the subject matter, (2) the scope of documents, and (3) the timeframe.

PASSHE v. APSCUF
142 A.3d 1023 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016)

The Commonwealth Court held that in cases involving voluminous records, the OOR may consider a claim by an agency that it cannot conduct a proper review of the responsive records within the RTKL’s timeline. The agency must provide an estimated number of records and the length of time required to review the records, along with — if the records are electronic — any anticipated difficulty in delivering them.

PUC v. Seder
139 A.3d 165 (Pa. 2016)

The Supreme Court upheld the OOR’s analysis of the Public Utility Code regarding the required disclosure of a “tip letter” and an investigative file associated with a settlement agreement.

Township of Worchester v. OOR
129 A.3d 44 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016)

The Commonwealth Court held that the OOR, which serves as fact-finder in RTKL appeals, has broad discretion to order in camera review of records.

Grine v. County of Centre
138 A.3d 88 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016)

The Commonwealth Court found that when financial records of a judicial agency documenting activities of judicial personnel are in the possession of, or shared by, a non-judicial agency, those records must nonetheless be requested from the judicial agency “to ensure the judiciary retains control of its records.”

In re Phila. Dist. Attorney’s Office
2016 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 55

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office acted in bad faith when it did not provide records as ordered by the OOR. The court imposed a $500 penalty. Note: The Commonwealth Court upheld this ruling in early 2017, stating that “the Trial Court made the requisite factual findings, supported by substantial record evidence, to conclude as a matter of law that the District Attorney acted in bad faith.”

Other significant cases from 2016 — and previous years — are available on the OOR website.

Fewer than 10% of OOR Decisions Get Appealed

A conversation on Twitter earlier today caused me to investigate (more accurately, caused me to ask someone in the office to investigate) how many Final Determinations issued by the Office of Open Records have been appealed to court.

OOR decisions involving state agencies can be appealed to Commonwealth Court. According to our figures, that’s happened 604 times since the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

OOR decisions involving local agencies can be appealed to the county Court of Common Pleas. Our figures indicate that’s happened 519 times.

As of today, the OOR has decided more than 13,000 appeals.

Thus, approximately 8.6 percent (1,123 out of 13,000) of the OOR’s decisions have been appealed to court.

Note: The numbers above are accurate to the best of our knowledge. Under the Right-to-Know Law, the OOR should be notified of any court appeal, but there have been instances where that hasn’t happened.