HARRISBURG – A recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruling could have a significant impact on the length of time public entities have to review and respond to requests for large volumes of records under the commonwealth’s Right-to-Know Law (RTKL).

 Although the court ruled in Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Office of the Chancellor, et. al. v. Association of State College and University Faculties that the size of a request should have no bearing on an entity’s statutory obligation to decide whether exemptions apply when there is not enough time to review the documents in question, it also set guidelines for seeking an extension of statutory deadlines for responding to records requests.

In its decision, the court said the RTKL was designed to allow all requested records to be reviewed “so that free and open discussions can take place within government when a decision is being deliberated, and that agencies should be afforded a sufficient opportunity to conduct investigations to protect the commonwealth’s security interests and the public’s privacy rights.”

Donald Gilliland, president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said the court’s ruling did not surprise him.

“I see it as evidence that our courts – and Judge (Dan) Pellegrini in particular – take citizens’ rights to open government very seriously, understand how the world works, and strive to fashion decisions that not only meet the spirit and letter of the law but also offer workable solutions to real problems,” Gilliland told the Pennsylvania Record.

Under the framework established by the court, public entities seeking an extension must provide to the Office of Open Records (OOR) an estimate of the number of documents being requested, an estimate of how long the review of the requested documents will take and, if the request involves documents in electronic format, the responding entity must explain any difficulties it may encounter in delivering those documents.

“These are steps that are being added to the process that are not in the law,” Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College & University Faculties, told the Pennsylvania Record. “(Adding steps) makes it more difficult for people to get this information.”

After this information is provided, the OOR can decide whether more time is warranted to allow the entity to decide whether any exemptions apply to the specific request.

“The ruling firmly comes down on the side of the requesters in that the documents must be released, but it also strikes what I think is a reasonable balance that allows for additional time for agencies to comply,” Gilliland said.

In the case at hand, two requesters asked each of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education to produce documents related to discussions of financing reports, new-hire training information and directions given to university employees in connection with the creation of the financial reports.

The universities said the requested documents included more than 74 gigabytes of electronic data. The universities took advantage of the 30-day response deadline granted under the RKTL. Although the requesting parties granted one extra 30-day extension, a second extension request was denied. As a result, the universities failed to meet the response deadline.

The universities took their case to the Commonwealth Court after the OOR ruled in favor of the requesters and ordered the university to produce the requested records.

“Undoubtedly, this issue will come up again as agencies – either this one or another in the future – take issue with OOR determinations of reasonable times, but the court’s ruling leaves no room for agencies to wriggle out of complying with large requests simply by claiming they are ‘overly broad,’” Gilliland said.

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