Philadelphia Trial Court Holds that Metadata is a Public Record

A trial court in Philadelphia has concluded that metadata is subject to public disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law (RTKL).  Scott v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Philadelphia C.C.P., 8/3/2012).  In that court’s opinion, an agency must honor a request to provide an electronic document in the format in which the document was originally created.

Metadata is “information that provides information about other data.”  See:  Examples of metadata include an electronic document’s name, location, format, and size.  This type of information is embedded into the electronic document, but it cannot be seen when the document is printed out.  Metadata can be removed or “scrubbed” from an electronic document by converting the document from its original format to another format such as Portable Document Format (.PDF).  Metadata can be a useful tool in litigation—for instance, a party can use metadata to prove that an electronic document was altered in some fashion.

The Scott case involved an RTKL request to SEPTA for emails.  The requester specifically requested that the emails be provided in their “original format.”  SEPTA purportedly granted the request but provided the emails in .PDF file format, rather than their original format (either .MSG or .PST file format).

Scott appealed SEPTA’s denial to the OOR.  The OOR found in SEPTA’s favor and held that SEPTA met its obligations under the RTKL by providing the requested e-mails in .PDF format.  Scott appealed the OOR’s final determination to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

Since no appellate court in Pennsylvania has addressed the issue of whether metadata is a “public record” as defined by the RTKL, the trial court reviewed court decisions from other states with open records laws similar to the RTKL.  The trial court found there is “… an emerging national consensus on the role of metadata – namely, that metadata is fundamentally a part of the computer file in which it is embedded.  Absent particular concerns about usability, metadata is presumptively discoverable, especially where the requesting party specifically requests documents in their original or ‘native’ format.”

In light of the reasoning adopted by courts in other states, the trial court determined that the embedded metadata was an inseparable part of the requested e-mails.  It ordered SEPTA to disclose the e-mails to the requester in their original format.

The request for information in the Scott case is similar to requests in other cases for information stored in electronic databases.  The Commonwealth Court has held that the importation of raw data to a spreadsheet does not constitute the creation of a record.  Com., Dept. of Envtl. Prot. v. Cole, 52 A.3d 541 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012).  The lesson to be gleaned from Scott and Cole is that agencies must, if requested, provide electronic records in the format in which they were created, including Excel format.

Disclaimer:  This blog is maintained by the members of Nauman Smith’s Media and Right-to-Know Law practice group.  The members of this practice group represent both: 1) media entities, individuals and corporations seeking access to public records, and 2) local municipalities seeking to comply with the law.  THIS BLOG IS NOT MEANT TO BE USED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  The purpose of this blog is to provide educational material for individuals interested in Pennsylvania’s open records law, commonly referred to as the “Right-to-Know Law” or “RTKL”.  The opinions expressed by the individual members of the practice group are solely their own, and do not reflect the opinions of Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, or the practice group as a whole.

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