Commonwealth Court issues ruling in RTKL response timeframe matter

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has ruled that the state is required to answer a

Right-to-Know Law request within five days of an agency’s open-records officer receiving the request, not within five days of any agency employee receiving the request.

The ruling came out of an appeal a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel was handling in a case in which both the Governor’s Office and the Office of Open Records each sought summary relief for their respective positions.

The Governor’s Office had filed for declaratory judgment over its contention that under Section 901 of the Right-to-Know Law, the five-day timeframe within which an agency is required to respond to a written request for records begins on the day on which an agency’s open-records officer receives the request.

The Office of Open Records, however, argued that the five-day timeframe begins on the day on which any agency employee receives the request.

In granting the Governor’s Office’s application for summary relief and denying the OOR’s cross-application for summary relief, the appeals panel wrote that the statutory language in Section 901 of the RTKL is unambiguous.

“Once the open-records officer for any agency, not any agency employee, receives a written request for records, the agency has five business days to respond to the request,” the panel wrote. “Based on this conclusion, there is no need to resort to other indicia of legislative intent.”

The OOR had argued that under the last sentence in Section 901 of the RTKL, a written request for access is deemed denied if an “agency” fails to respond to the request within five business days and, based on that language, the five-day response time must commence when the “agency” receives the request.

This interpretation, however, would require the court to ignore the language of Section 901 specifically referring to receipt of the written request “by the open-records officer for an agency,” the judges wrote.

“Because OOR’s interpretation would prohibit us from giving effect to all of Section 901’s provisions, we reject OOR’s argument,” the opinion states.

The panel also rejected the notion that under its interpretation, an agency would be inclined to act in bad faith by delaying the transmission of a request from its employees to its open-records officer, or to refuse to respond to a request until the request reaches its open-records officer.

“No rule of law requires this Court to presume that an agency will act in bad faith in complying with its statutory duties,” the opinion reads. “Rather, we presume here that every agency attempts to comply with the RTKL in good faith.”

The appeal arose out of a case in which Sean Donahue submitted a RTKL request back in early March of last year seeking various state government budgetary and employment records.

On March 19, the Office of General Counsel issued a letter to Donahue stating that on March 12, Donahue’s request was received by the open-records officers of the Governor’s Office and other agencies to which the request was also directed, but that the request was not directly received by the open-records officers from Donahue.

The letter also stated that the OGC was issuing a response on behalf of the various agencies that granted the request in part and denied the request in part for various reasons.

Donahue appealed to the OOR on March 29 of last year.

The OOR subsequently determined that Donahue’s request was properly denied, the record shows.

The Governor’s Office filed its appeal with Commonwealth Court on May 24, seeking a declaration that the OOR is misinterpreting the RTKL with respect to the commencement of the five-day response time listed in Section 901 of the RTKL.

The opinion was written by Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson. President Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter joined on the decision, which was filed Jan. 23.

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