No Right-to-Know If Not Directed To Open-Records Officer

In the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Commonwealth v. Office of Open Records, the Court clarified that a public records request under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) must be addressed to an agency’s open-records officer in order for the requester to receive the benefits of the RTKL

This Pennsylvania Supreme Court case involved an e-mail 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 e-mail did not mention the Gaming Board’s open-records officer by name or title and the email address used was not the e-mail 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 State Office of Open Records (OOR) as a deemed denial.  OOR and the 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 OOR and the Commonwealth Court had ignored the 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;
  • If it is sent to a dedicated email address or telefax number for the open-records officer; or
  • If it is placed directly in the hands of the open-records officer.

Based on the above Court analysis, a mere request for information, without more, is insufficient to put a school district on notice that the requester wishes to invoke all of the rights of appeal and remedies provided by the RTKL.  For example, 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.

Regardless of this clarification, school districts should always act in good faith in accordance with Pennsylvania’s RTKL and its objective of responding appropriately to all requests.  However, school districts now have a valid defense against claimed violations of the RTKL 5 day response time requirements if the RTKL request is not addressed to the district’s open records officer.  If you have any questions, please contact Falco Muscante at 412-242-4400.

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