Tax Assessment Rolls Remain Public Records

Last year, in a case known as PSEA III, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that public school employees have a constitutional right to “informational privacy” in their home addresses. PSEA III raised more questions than it answered. Prior to releasing a public record containing home addresses, like a tax assessment role, must government agencies conduct a constitutional balancing test to determine if some or all home addresses should be redacted from the document? Must the agency notify and give persons opportunity to object to disclosure of their home addresses? Or can someone still walk into a government agency and immediately review tax assessment rolls as required by statute and as they have been able to do for decades prior to PSEA III?

The Commonwealth Court answered these questions in a case involving a request to a school district for a tax assessment roll. Agencies need not perform a constitutional balancing test unless the information at issue is sufficiently personal to trigger protection of a privacy interest. Since ownership of real property is not inherently personal in nature, tax assessment roles remain public records, as mandated by statute and caselaw for decades.

This case was pending at the same time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided PSEA III. The school district denied the request for the tax assessment roll because a single judge of the Commonwealth Court entered a preliminary injunction barring the Office of Open Records (OOR) from ordering school districts to disclose public school employees’ home addresses. Due to that injunction, which is now extinguished by PSEA III, the OOR ordered the school district to redact employees’ home addresses from the list. The court of common pleas overruled the OOR and ordered the list be withheld in its entirety.

After PSEA III was decided, the requester argued that the newly created right to informational privacy could not disrupt public access to tax assessment rolls. The requester warned of the chaos that would befall both the real estate industry and the school districts that would have to scour tax rolls to redact home addresses. The requester received substantial public support in favor of his position, including an amicus brief filed by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. The public sector union that litigated PSEA III intervened to concede that tax assessment rolls are public records.

Judge Simpson, joined by Judge Covey, held that tax assessment rolls do not qualify as sufficiently personal in nature to trigger a balancing test. Prior to PSEA III, courts routinely held that the public may use the Right-to-Know Law to access tax assessment roles. A request for a record tied to property ownership is fundamentally distinct from a request for a home address of a specified individual or group of individuals. While the later requires a constitutional balancing test, the former does not. Judge Wojcik dissented arguing that the majority violated PSEA III by not remanding to the OOR to conduct a constitutional balancing test.

This case shows that PSEA III is a very narrow decision that does not disrupt the public nature of records that contain home addresses such as tax assessment roles, real estate tax payment records, or building/zoning permits. Since requests for those types of records do not trigger constitutional rights, agencies do not have to perform burdensome balancing tests or send costly notices.

Note: Attorneys in Nauman Smith’s Right-to-Know practice group represented the requester in this matter.

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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