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
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
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
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
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.