Use of Mandamus to Enforce OOR Determination Questioned

The Commonwealth Court’s recent decision in Capinski v. Upper Pottsgrove Towship could foreshadow changes in the way final determinations from the Office of Open Records (OOR) are enforced. Although the majority’s opinion, authored by President Judge Leavitt, accepts the use of writs of mandamus as the appropriate vehicle for petitioners seeking enforcement of final OOR determinations, Judge Brobson’s concurrence highlights the difficulty the court has in deciding procedural methods that the legislature failed to address while drafting the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL).

The case arose from a RTKL request filed by James Capinski seeking the production of documents by Upper Pottsgrove Township about escrow information attached to settlements that occurred over 50 years ago. The OOR issued a final determination directing the Township to search for the requested documents by contacting third parties that may hold them on behalf of the township. In the months following the final determination, Capinski filed a “Petition to Enforce the Office of Open Records’ Determinations” with the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Capinski sought to enforce the OOR’s final determination by compelling the Township to produce the documents, while also seeking attorney fees and civil penalties. The trial court denied the petition after conducting an evidentiary hearing and finding that the records were not in possession of the Township. Capinski appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

While the Commonwealth Court affirmed the holding of the trial court, it explained that writs of mandamus are appropriate to enforce OOR final determinations, given the absence of an alternative statutory procedure in the RTKL. Because a government agency must comply with the final determinations of the OOR and a successful requester lacks any other adequate legal remedy, writs of mandamus can be used to enforce OOR final determinations. Judge Brobson took issue with the decision of the majority that writs of mandamus are appropriate because of original jurisdiction issues under the Judicial Code.

If writs of mandamus are used to enforce OOR final determinations, any grant or denial of the writ would be appealable under Section 723(a) of the Judicial Code as a matter of right, since mandamus complaints meet the definition of matters “originally commenced in Commonwealth Court.” However, as argued by Judge Brobson, if the “petition to enforce” was characterized as such, it should not be considered a matter “originally commenced in Commonwealth Court” and any rulings on such petitions would not be appealable to the Supreme Court.

Given that Judge Brobson will remain on the Court for some time, his opinion on mandamus may shape future decisions. Although writs of mandamus remain the proper channel for petitioners seeking enforcement of the OOR’s final determinations, changes could be coming. Legislative action could effectively provide a method for enforcement of OOR orders through amending the RTKL to provide requestors with a statutory remedy. Still, the Supreme Court will be tasked with this issue as an appeal by petition for allowance is pending.

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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