Commonwealth Court Awards RTKL Statutory Penalty for Bad Faith Against Department of Corrections

Uniontown Newspapers, Inc., d/b/a/ The Herald Standard; and Christine Haines v. PA Dept. of Corrections, No. 66 M.D. 2015, filed March 23, 2018

On March 23, 2018, the Honorable Robert Simpson released an unreported opinion in the above matter addressing what it means to act in bad faith under the RTKL Section 1305(a). The case held that some of the actions or lack thereof by the DOC in responding to a RTKL request amounted to bad faith which merited statutory sanctions and granted the maximum civil penalty of $1,500 against the DOC.

The Uniontown case was a culmination of years of back and forth between the DOC and the Requester after questions arose concerning potentially unhealthy conditions for inmates housed at SCI-Fayette. The request sought health information, diagnoses, medication records, and other such documents to determine whether the conditions at SCI-Fayette differed from other SCI institutions due to a coal waste dump near the prison.

The Requester sought and was granted relief under Section 1305(a) of the RTKL which allows a court to “impose a civil penalty of not more than $1,500 if an agency denied access to a public record in bad faith.” Pursuant to this Section, the Requester alleged that the DOC was in bad faith for three reasons: they narrowly construed the request to only include certain types of health ailments, they failed to search records in good faith to determine if they were responsive and who was in control of them, and they did not comply with the OOR Final Determination ordering disclosure of ‘all responsive records.’ The court found that the DOC did not narrowly construe the request in bad faith, disposing of the Requester’s first allegation, but did find that the DOC both failed to search records in good faith and failed to comply with the OOR disclosure order.

With respect to the Requester’s second argument, the court explained that in order to search for responsive documents in good faith, the DOC had a duty when it received the request to advise the custodians of potentially responsive records and request to obtain them, a duty to contact agents or third-parties within its control who had potentially responsive records, and a duty to review and assess such records to decide whether or not they were responsive. The court said that the DOC, in bad faith, failed to search for and locate responsive records until it was motivated to do so by litigation. The court also said that it was bad faith for the DOC to deny access to documents before they had obtained or reviewed them, without knowledge of whether or not they would have been responsive.

The court then addressed the Requester’s third allegation, that the DOC did not comply with the OOR order to disclose other responsive documents. It found that the DOC did not compile and disclose ‘all responsive records’ and did not comply with the order within the 30 days allowed. The court reasoned that because the DOC persistently denied access to public documents in the face of the court’s earlier summary relief opinion affirming the OOR order to disclose, this constituted bad faith. The court emphasized that to date, the DOC has still not disclosed “all responsive records,” delaying access to public records for three years.

This case serves to send a message to agencies who may not be taking the RTKL requirements seriously. Judge Simpson directly addressed this message in the opinion saying “I award the maximum penalty to deter DOC and other agencies from disregarding their statutory duties under the RTKL,” leaving the door open for a potential request for attorney’s fees advising that the Requester should assert as much within 30 days.

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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