Insufficiently Specific Request for Emails Denied where County Unable to Perform Keyword Search of Archived Emails

The Commonwealth Court has affirmed the denial of a request for county emails because the requester failed to sufficiently articulate what emails he wanted to obtain. In Montgomery County v. Iverson, — A.3d —-, 1071 C.D. 2011 (Pa.Cmwlth. 8/15/12), the requester submitted a request for emails in the County’s possession. The requester asked the County to produce all emails to and from specific internet domains which contained one of fourteen keywords. The County denied the request because the RTKL does not require an agency to search for records if the request is insufficiently specific for the agency to determine the records sought.

The OOR directed the County to provide the emails, but the court of common pleas reversed. The County’s infrastructure development manager testified that the County could not search its archived emails by keyword unless the County purchased computer hardware. The County would have to buy new servers and storage devices so that it could restore each calendar year of emails. It would take ten weeks to restore emails back to 2006 and then each keyword search would take 45 days per calendar year of search. The court of common pleas held that responding to the request would place an unreasonable burden on the County.

The Commonwealth Court agreed that the request was insufficiently specific for the County to determine what records the requester was seeking. The request did not provide a timeframe with regard to the emails it seeks, nor did it identify specific individuals, email addresses, or even departments. Thus, there was no context in which the search could be narrowed. Due to the fact that the majority found the request to be insufficiently specific, it did not reach the issue of whether the County was required to perform a keyword search.

Judge Pelligrini wrote a concurring opinion regarding the County’s arguments that it could not perform a keyword search of the emails in its possession. The concurring opinion is not precedential, meaning lower courts are not bound to follow it, but lower courts may find the concurring opinion persuasive. Judge Pelligrini agreed that a requester needs to set forth the specific timeframe for the records sought. He disagreed, however, with the proposition that an agency can deny a request because it will have to produce a large amount of records, and with the proposition that a requester must identify the specific individuals or email addresses. He indicated that a keyword search may form the basis of a valid request, but that the keyword search must be sufficiently defined so as to not place an unreasonable burden on the agency. He found the specific request in this case would have created an unreasonable burden on the agency because of the County’s evidence regarding the necessity to purchase new equipment and the laborious process to search the emails for responsive records.

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