Philadelphia District Attorney Sanctioned for Denying Access to Public Records

The Commonwealth Court has affirmed an order of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas that imposed a civil penalty of $500 on the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia for denying access to public records in bad faith. Office of District Attorney of Philadelphia v. Bagwell, Nos. 2627, 2641 C.D. 2015, 435, 473 C.D. 2016 (Pa. Commw. February 16, 2017).

The Requester submitted Right-to-Know requests to the City of Philadelphia and the District Attorney for records related to the City’s record retention policies and a prior search for public records allegedly performed by the District Attorney. The City and the District Attorney denied the requests because the Court of Common Pleas had denied a motion to compel discovery for the similar records in pending litigation with the Requester.

Section 1305 of the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) permits a court to impose a civil penalty where an agency denies access to a public record in bad faith. The Commonwealth Court found “the record [wa]s replete with evidence of the District Attorney’s bad faith in denying Requester access to public records.”   The Court found all of these actions constituted bad faith:

  1. The District Attorney based its denial on the identity of the Requester and the presumed intended use in violation of Section 302 of the RTKL.
  2. The District Attorney’s initial denial letter failed to cite any legal authority in support of its reasons for denial in violation of Section 903 of the RTKL.
  3. The District Attorney did not make a good faith search for the requested records in violation of Section 901 of the RTKL.
  4. The District Attorney’s representation of binding precedent and the state of the law in the Commonwealth throughout the proceedings was deficient at best. The Court noted that the Rules of Professional Conduct mandate that agency counsel be candid with the Court when describing controlling legal authorities.

This case provides much needed guidance on what types of agency conduct are sanctionable under the RTKL. This is the first reported appellate decision approving sanctions against an agency since the enactment of the RTKL in 2009.

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.