Lawyers representing a host of John Doe plaintiffs who are filing suit against the City of
Philadelphia and others over publicly disclosed gun license information are scheduled to be in court this week to ask a judge to allow the litigation to move forward without identifying the plaintiffs by name.
Court records show that the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case are expected to appear before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker Wednesday morning to request that the identity of the handful of plaintiffs be kept confidential because the case deals with allegations that the plaintiffs’ carry license application denials or license revocations were unlawfully posted to a city website in violation of a state law that mandates gun license information be kept private.
Court records show that early last month, Bechtelsville, Pa. attorney Joshua Prince filed a petition at Common Pleas Court seeking to have a judge direct the county Prothonotary to file the civil action utilizing John Does as plaintiffs and seal it due to the confidentiality of 18 Pa. Con. Stat. 6111(i), which is the state law barring the public release of firearm license information.
A docket entry shows that a hearing on the motion has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday in Tucker’s courtroom.
The defendants in the case, according to the complaint, which was attached as exhibit to the petition, are the City of Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Gun Permit Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Office of Innovation & Technology, the Philadelphia License and Inspection Board of Review and various John Doe city employees.
The case has its roots in personal information that was posted to the website of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections this summer as part of a department-wide initiative to make more license information publicly available, according to the lawsuit and media reports.
As part of the initiative, IT personnel posted to the site the names and addresses of people who applied for a License to Carry Firearms, but were subsequently denied for various reasons.
Posted along with that information was the reason for the application denial or the license revocation, depending on the course of action taken.
The site also contained an interactive map whereby Internet users could see exactly where the person appealing the license denial or revocation resides.
All of this, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue, is totally against state law.
“The argument is this: when there are appeals in these gun permit denial cases the names of the parties are secret,” said Jonathan Goldstein, co-counsel in the case. “If they’re docketed they have to be docketed under seal.”
Goldstein, who spoke by phone with the Pennsylvania Record on Monday, said that he and Prince, the lawyer who initially filed the lawsuit, as well as Radnor, Pa. attorney Benjamin Picker, who also signed on as co-counsel, all contend that the city violated state law when it posted this information online.
The personal information was taken off of the L&I website at the request of Philadelphia Police not long after it was posted, but those whose information initially made its way to the Internet were still furious that the information ever made its way to cyberspace in the first place.
“We believe that the city’s revelation of the names of the people is not permitted. And they [the city] believe that it’s no big deal,” Goldstein said in his interview.
Goldstein said he and his team will be requesting that Judge Tucker allow the case to proceed with John Doe plaintiffs because “we believe that the names of the people should be kept secret.”
The city apparently feels otherwise.
Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, previously told local media that the information that had been published by L&I on its website was public record because applicants waive their right to confidentiality when they appeal a gun license denial or revocation.
A reporter with the Philly Post published an article in mid August that had McDonald saying, “The legal department has determined that this is public information. Its publication is legal. An individual who is denied a permit and files an appeal, that person has waived their right to confidentiality.”
The details of the Philly Post story are laid out in the lawsuit, which goes on to say McDonald conceded that there was a concern about the “propriety of publishing the information, and so we’re looking at this again.
“On the one hand, city government wants to be transparent and believes in the concept of open data,” McDonald was quoted as saying in the story, according to the suit. “But on the other hand, there are public safety concerns with regard to this information.”
Those safety concerns, the plaintiffs in the litigation contend, have to do with having their personal names and addresses posted to a publicly viewable website, especially after it was made clear that they would be unarmed in public due to their carry licenses either being denied or revoked.
According to the complaint, a paralegal working for plaintiffs’ attorney Prince made an in-person trip to L&I headquarters in September in an attempt to obtain the personal information that had been posted to the website, and which McDonald maintained should be available for public inspection.
The paralegal, however, had her request denied, and was told by an L&I representative that “appeal information is confidential,” according to the lawsuit.
A Philadelphia Police License to Carry Firearms application also notes that all information supplied is “confidential and not subject to public disclosure.”
The complaint says that as a result of the defendants’ conduct, all plaintiffs’ reputations have been adversely affected by the defamatory and unlawful disclosures.
The lawsuit further states that under Section 6111(i) of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act, any licensed dealer, state or local governmental agency or department that violates the provision dealing with public disclosure of gun license applicant information is liable to civil damages in the amount of $1,000 per occurrence or three times the actual damages incurred as a result of the violation, as well as attorney’s fees.
In addition to the Uniform Firearms Act violations, the complaint contains counts of breach of confidentiality and invasion of privacy.
The plaintiffs seek class certification as well as declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, statutory damages of $1,000 per defendant, per disclosure, per plaintiff, which is believed to be in excess of $25 million, attorneys fees, costs, interest and other court relief.
The case ID number is 121100593.