Nauman Smith Wins PA Supreme Court Appeal for News Media Coalition

Nauman, Smith, Shissler & Hall, LLP, is pleased to report a victory for greater access to PUC records for its clients and for all Pennsylvania citizens in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) denied requests by reporters from the Times Leader of Wilkes Barre and The Morning Call of Allentown for documents related to a settlement agreement between the PUC and PPL Electric Utilities Corporation (PPL), including an anonymous tip letter that the PUC received which sparked a PUC investigation of PPL.   The tip letter alleged that PPL violated PUC priority-ranking policies when restoring power after an October 2011 snowstorm where almost 400,000 customers lost power.  The settlement agreement required PPL to pay a civil settlement fee of $60,000. In response to the reporters’ requests, the PUC refused to release documents that the PUC’s Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement (I&E) relied on and that it and PPL submitted during its investigation.   The PUC asserted the documents were exempt from disclosure under the Public Utility Code and the Right-to-Know Law.  The reporters argued that Section 335(d) of the PUC Code required that the letter and investigation materials be released as public records independent of the RTKL.

The Office of Open Records ordered the PUC to release the requested records to the reporters. The PUC and PPL appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which reversed the OOR and permitted withholding of the records.  Craig J. Staudenmaier of Nauman Smith, represented the coalition of 10 newsmedia organizations that sought review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted review and on May 25 found in favor of the news media organizations.   The court held Section 335(d) of the PUC Code “clearly and unambiguously obligates disclosure” of the records relied upon by the PUC in reaching a settlement with PPL, including the records generated by and relied upon by I&E.

“We are pleased that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized the intent of Section 335(d) that these records be made public. There is a great public benefit to the PUC conducting transparent investigations of public utilities,” stated Craig J. Staudenmaier, managing partner, and chair of Nauman Smith’s Right-to-Know and Media Law practice group.  The Court recognized that the Legislature enacted 335(d) to assure greater access to PUC records in such proceedings than even the RTKL or the Sunshine Act would permit.  The case highlights the Supreme Court’s rejection of a disturbing trend by agencies to use the Right-to-Know Law to obstruct and delay access to records that are made public by other laws.  Mr. Staudenmaier explains, “the PUC argued that the Right-to-Know Law’s exemption for non-criminal investigative records applies even where the Public Utility Code states investigative records of public utilities are to be public.  The Supreme Court’s decision confirms that the RTKL’s exemptions do not apply and effectively overrules a series of prior Commonwealth Court decisions.”

Nauman Smith maintains a Right-to-Know Law blog highlighting legal developments in cases involving access to public 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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