Citizens Have a “Right-to-Know” Whether Their Government Collects Outstanding Debts

Under the RTKL agency records are presumably “public records” available for inspection by the public unless “exempt from being disclosed under any other Federal or State law.” 65 P.S. § 67.102. The question then becomes whether public debts (like unpaid taxes or sewer bills) must be disclosed to the under the RTKL, given that Pennsylvania’s Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act (FCEUA) prohibits creditors from publishing lists of customers who have outstanding debts. 73 P.S. § 2270.4. This is precisely the issue that arose when the Patriot News issued a RTKL request to the Lemoyne Borough.

The Patriot News submitted a RTKL request to the Borough of Lemoyne (the “Borough) seeking the names of all residents whose sewer payments were more than 90 days delinquent as of July 31, 2013. The Patriot also requested the outstanding balances and number of days past due for each delinquent account. The Borough denied the request, asserting that the disclosure of such information was a violation of Pennsylvania’s Fair Credit Extension Uniformity Act (FCEUA), 73 P.S. § 2270.1 et seq. The FCEUA prohibits a creditor from engaging “in any conduct the natural consequence of which is to harass, oppress or abuse any person in connection with the collection of a debt . . . [including] [t]he publication of a list of consumers who allegedly refuse to pay debts.” 73 P.S. § 2270.4. The Patriot appealed this denial to the Office of Open Records (OOR), which held that the FCEUA did not apply to the records sought because such were not being released to collect a debt. The OOR ordered the Borough to release the records, and the Borough appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County.

The Court agreed with the OOR and ordered the Borough to disclose the records to the Patriot. It reasoned that the release of such records would not be an attempt to collect a debt but rather a response to a RTK request, stating “Lemoyne is not taking any action ‘in connection with the collection of a debt’ but is simply responding to a valid RTKL request.” Borough of Lemoyne v. Pa. Office of Open Records, C.A. 13-6395 at 8 (Pa. Comm. Pl. May, 16, 2014) (quoting 73 P.S. § 2270.4(b)). Furthermore, the court distinguished disclosing the records to the Patriot from the “publication” prohibited by FCEUA. To hold otherwise, in the court’s opinion, would ignore the clear intent of the RTKL to deem all agency records presumably discoverable as publicly available information.

This decision, which was recently endorsed by Judge Turgeon of the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, illustrates that the Right-to-Know Law not only allows citizens access to how public funds are spent, but also as to how they are collected. With Judge Turgeon’s decision involving Lower Paxton Township in Dauphin County, three Common Pleas courts have agreed that the FCEUA does not bar a public municipal authority from releasing delinquent account information in response to a Right-to-Know request. Access to such information is vital to ensuring citizens that public authorities are properly pursuing bad debts and are not showing favoritism to any one person or particular business interest. This is especially poignant in today’s economy where public bodies are called upon to do more with less available funding—so obtaining monies properly owed to them is as vital an aspect of responsible government as prudent spending.

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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