Court Denies Action to Enforce Final Determination of Office of Open Records

The Commonwealth Court has affirmed the denial of a civil action brought by an open records requester to enforce a favorable final determination.  Crockett v. Southeastern Transportation Authority (SEPTA), 2295 C.D. 2011 (Pa.Cwlth. 9/11/12).  The case is noteworthy as the first appellate court decision to address the procedure to challenge an agency’s actions after the issuance of a final determination.  This case not only provides guidance to requesters who have been stonewalled after a successful appeal, but also addresses the lengths an agency must go to in order to comply with a final determination.

A personal injury attorney submitted an RTKL request to SEPTA for records related to a train accident.  SEPTA disclosed an accident report but withheld maintenance and personnel records.  The requester appealed to the OOR, which issued a final determination directing SEPTA to release additional records related to the identity of the train and personnel involved in the accident and additional maintenance and employment records.

SEPTA did not appeal the final determination.  Thirty three days after the issuance of the final determination, the requester initiated the enforcement action by filing a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Commonwealth Court.  On the same date, SEPTA provided the requester with a number of documents, and continued to provide supplemental documents over the next seven months.

The Commonwealth Court transferred the enforcement action to the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia (trial court).  The requester subsequently filed a motion for sanctions which was consolidated by the trial court with the petition for mandamus.  The trial court, after hearing, denied the petition for mandamus, request for damages, and motion for sanctions, determining that, based on SEPTA’s production of numerous documents and materials, SEPTA had complied with the final determination.   The trial court further found that SEPTA made a good faith effort to comply with the final determination, even though it was unable to produce certain hand written notes.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision and reasoning of trial court.  The Commonwealth Court further held that: (1) the requester was not entitled to damages under the Section 8303 of the Judicial Code because he was not successful in the mandamus action and (2) the requester was not entitled to receive a civil penalty under Section 1305(a) of the RTKL because SEPTA made a good faith effort to comply with the final determination.

This case demonstrates that courts will entertain mandamus proceedings, in the absence of a statutory enforcement mechanism under the RTKL, where there is an allegation that an agency has not complied with a final determination issued by the Office of Open Records.  This case further demonstrates that agencies must act in good faith after the issuance of a final determination.  An agency will not be sanctioned for failing to produce records that no longer exist, but the agency must make a good faith effort to produce records as directed by the Office of Open Records.

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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