PA Supreme Court: District Attorneys Not Judicial Agencies

On November 22, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that District Attorneys are not judicial agencies under the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL).

In the majority opinion in the case of Stacy Parks Miller v. Centre County, authored by Justice Wecht, the Supreme Court held that: “Examination of the RTKL, the definitional section of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa.C.S. § 102, and the definitions provided in our Rules of Judicial Administration, demonstrate that a district attorney’s office is not a ‘judicial agency’ for purposes of the RTKL.”

The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Saylor and Justices Baer, Todd and Mundy. Justice Donohue authored a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Dougherty.

The distinction is significant because the RTKL applies in a very limited fashion to judicial agencies, which are required to provide only financial records. The law’s application to local agencies is much broader.

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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.

RTK Request Received by the OOR for Home Addresses

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent decision in Pennsylvania State Education Association vs. The Office of Open Records, 2016 Pa. LEXIS 2337, 41 I.E.R. Cas. (BNA) 1310 (Pa. Oct. 18, 2016), opens with this text:

This case involves an examination of the scope of the “personal security” exception to disclosure under the Right to Know Law (“RTKL”), 65 P.S. §§ 67.101- 67.3104, and, more specifically, whether school districts must disclose the home addresses of public school employees. Under the prior Right to Know Act, 65 P.S. §§ 66.1-66.4 (repealed, effective January 1, 2009) (“RTKA”), this Court had on three occasions ruled that certain types of information, including home addresses, implicated the right to privacy under Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and thus required a balancing to determine whether the right to privacy outweighs the public’s interest in dissemination. Sapp Roofing Co. v. Sheet Metal Workers’ Int’l Ass’n, Local Union No. 12, 713 A.2d 627 (Pa. 1998) (plurality); Pa. State Univ. v. State Employees’ Retirement Board, 935 A.2d 530 (Pa. 2007); Tribune-Review Publ. Co. v. Bodack, 961 A.2d 110 (Pa. 2008). Our task here is to determine whether this analysis continues to obtain under the RTKL. We hold that it does.

The case most directly addresses the issue of Right-to-Know Law requests for the home addresses of public agency employees (e.g., teachers) when a request is directed to their employer (e.g., school district).

But it has broader implications as well, as the right of privacy inherent in Article 1, Section 1, of the Pennsylvania state constitution (“All men are born and equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.”) also applies outside the specific context of a request for the home addresses of public agency employees directed to their employer.

You can read the majority opinion here, and a concurring opinion here.

As the Office of Open Records handles cases – both requests and appeals – dealing with the type of personal information addressed in PSEA, I’ll post our responses and decisions here in an attempt to help members of the public and public agencies navigate similar issues.

On October 19, 2016, the OOR received the following request (edited for brevity and clarity):

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Supreme Court Ruling in PSEA Case

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued a ruling in PSEA v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a case involving the home addresses of public school employees.

The opinion was authored by Justice Donohue and joined by Chief Justice Saylor and Justices Baer, Todd and Dougherty. Justice Wecht filed a concurring opinion. Both are available here:

PSEA v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – Majority Opinion – Oct. 18, 2016 – PDF

PSEA v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – Concurring Opinion – Oct. 18, 2016 – PDF

The case has been “remanded to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings consistent with this decision.”

Supreme Court: OOR is Unique, Independent

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania today issued a ruling which holds that the Office of Open Records is “a unique and sui generis independent body” and that its executive director is not an at-will employee.

I believe the Office of Open Records must be independent to work as it was intended, and I’m thrilled the Supreme Court agreed. I’m excited to continue working as the head of this office. It’s an incredible team.

Here are the majority opinion, authored by Justice Baer and joined by Chief Justice Saylor and Justice Eakin, and a dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Todd:

Majority Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

OOR Filing in PSEA Case

One of the most-watched Right-to-Know Law court cases involves the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the issue of agency employees’ home addresses.

As part of the case, the Office of Open Records recently filed this brief. Full disclosure: It’s a 110-page PDF.

(The most recent court filing in the case was made by the Supreme Court on June 17, 2015, when it issued an order continuing the injunction entered on July 28, 2009, as modified by the March 15, 2014, order.)

The Supreme Court has not scheduled argument as of this posting.