Voluminous Request’s Specificity Affirmed, But Agency/OOR Given Additional Time to Consider Exemptions

PASSHE et al. v. APSCUF, July 6, 2016

The Commonwealth Court has affirmed the Office of Open Records’ (OOR) determination that a broad request involving budget and financial reports, as well as training and transitional documents from 14 Pennsylvania State System (PASSHE) universities and the Chancellor, was sufficiently specific to mandate public disclosure.  The case is significant due to the large quantity of documents and electronic information that the OOR required the universities and Chancellor to make public.

The request asked the universities to produce several categories of documents despite the fact that the universities and Chancellor claimed it was overly broad and extremely difficult to locate and produce all of the information.  They claimed that the request would include over 1.87 million pages of budget, financial and training information and at least 2,366 emails.  The OOR determined, however, that the requests were sufficiently specific under Section 703 of the Right to Know Law despite the Petitioners’ request for clarification with regard to which types of documents must be disclosed, and multiple 30 day extension requests.  On December 14, 2015 the OOR issued a final determination mandating the disclosure of the documents.

The universities subsequently appealed the OOR’s decision on the grounds that the subject matter, scope and timeframe of the request were too broad.  However, the Commonwealth Court upheld the OOR’s decision that the request was sufficiently specific despite the breadth of the request.  The court applied a three-part balancing test from Pennsylvania Department of Education v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 119 A.3d 1121, (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015) in which the subject matter, scope and timeframe of the documents requested are analyzed for appropriate specificity.  The court determined that the requests for budget and financial information were sufficiently specific because the request for documents from specified officials and universities was limited to provide specified reports and a finite time period.  The request for documents pertaining to new hires was sufficiently specific because it was limited for new hires only at the time the right to know law requests were issued.  Finally, the court held that the request involving information about instructions and feedback regarding budget and financial reports was sufficiently specific because it specified which employees were subject to the request, what the information the request pertained to, and the time frame of the information requested.

Interestingly, although the Court affirmed the OOR as to its determination that the request was sufficiently specific, it vacated and remanded to the OOR to decide when the documents had to be produced due to the large volume.  The decision appears to have granted the OOR the discretion to give additional time to the agency to gather, review and determine what documents to produce and exemptions to assert, provided it sufficiently justifies the lack of time to do so due to the volume requested.  It also appears to consequently give the OOR additional time to consider such a claim and any subsequent exemptions claimed.  The Court likened this situation to the Supreme Court’s decision in Aston Township where the court held it would be against the clear legislative intent that not all agency records be public (by enumerating numerous categories of exemptions) because of an open records officer’s failure to assert a valid exemption in the initial denial.  On its face, this would appear to take issue with the strict time periods within the RTKL for such determinations.  How this may affect future large requests remains to be seen.

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.