PA Supreme Court: Not all written requests to school districts for information are Right-to-Know Law requests!

On Nov. 10, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board v. Office of Open Records, _ A 3d _ (Pa 2014). This Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) case involved an email sent to the Gaming Board’s Communications Office. The writer asked to be placed on the list to testify at a public hearing and to be sent some materials relating to gaming license applications. The email did not mention the Gaming Board’s open-records officer by name or title and the email address used was not the email address for the open records officer.

When the Communications Office did not send a response about the requested materials within five business days, the writer appealed this to the Office of Open Records (OOR) as a deemed denial. OOR and Commonwealth Court held this was a written request as defined by the RTKL and that the writer had the right to appeal and seek relief under the RTKL.

The Supreme Court disagreed. It found that to reach this result, OOR and Commonwealth Court had to ignore plain language in the RTKL that requires written requests to be addressed to the agency open-records officer. While the court did not go so far as to suggest a specific address must be used in order to comply with this mandate, it did say that the open-records officer must be addressed in some “meaningful” way.

The Court gave a number of examples that would be sufficient to create a valid written RTKL request:

  • If the subject line, salutation or body expressly indicates the open-records officer is the intended recipient, this would be sufficient.
  • So, too, if it goes to a dedicated email address or telefax number for the open-records officer this is sufficient.
  • Placing it directly in the hands of the open-records officer also is acceptable.

However, a mere request for information, without more, is insufficient to put an agency on notice that the requester wishes to invoke all of the rights of appeal and remedies provided by the RTKL. Even if a request specifically states that it is a RTKL request, absent some indication it is for the open-records officer the request is not sufficient to trigger a right to appeal a deemed denial.

The Supreme Court overturned the Commonwealth Court decision that continued the broad interpretation of this portion of the RTKL.

Now the Supreme Court has recognized that the plain language of the law is best evidence of the General Assembly’s intent and reversed.  A Right to Know Request must go to the Open Records Officer in order for the Requester to invoke the rights of appeal and remedies provided by the RTKL.

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