Discovery of Requester Financial Information in RTKL Cases?

Tricia Mezzacappa v. Borough of West Easton, 290 C.D. 2017 & 498 C.D. 2017, filed Jan. 18, 2018

On January 18, 2018, the Commonwealth Court filed an unreported opinion in an appeal from a trial court order granting a municipality’s Motion to Compel Deposition in Mezzacappa v. Borough of West Easton, Nos. 290 C.D. 2017, 498 C.D. 2017. While the Commonwealth Court found that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal, the discovery issue in this matter raises serious concerns for requesters under the RTKL.

In Mezzacappa, the trial court ordered the parties to engage in discovery and set dates for depositions following the requester’s filing of Petitions for Contempt after the municipality failed to fully disclose records in compliance with an OOR determination upheld by the trial court. The Contempt Petitions sought punitive damages and other sanctions and/or fines in accordance with the RTKL.

At Mezzacappa’s deposition, counsel for the municipality asked the requester about her financial status and recent employment history. Requester’s counsel objected to these questions, and the municipality subsequently filed a Motion to Compel Deposition to compel the requester to answer questions about her income, debts, and past employers. The municipality asserted that the request for punitive damages stemmed from financial problems, and the trial court ultimately granted the municipality’s Motion to Compel.

Although the Commonwealth Court lacked jurisdiction to address the underlying issue regarding the compelled discovery of the requester’s financial information, Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer noted that “it is troubling to the Court that Appellant must disclose her financial and work history information because it does not appear relevant to the subject matter of the underlying proceedings.” Namely, the underlying issue – whether the municipality complied with the trial court’s order related to the request for records, and the appropriate sanction for noncompliance – is unrelated to the requester’s financial health, given that a requester’s motive is irrelevant under the RTKL.

If the trial court’s order compelling disclosure of a requester’s financial and employment status is eventually upheld, particularly arising out of the agency’s failure to disclose public records, a dangerous impediment to access will result. Such a holding could place an effective intimidation tactic in the hands of agencies. A requester seeking access to public records could be reluctant to pursue enforcement of an order to disclose. Is this what the RTKL was meant to stand for? Judge Cohn Jubelirer’s observation is insightful. Let us hope it’s not prophetic.

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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