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Commonwealth Court Holds that the Failure to Identify a Transaction or Activity of an Agency in a Request for Records Under the Right-To-Know Law Does Not Automatically Make the Request Invalid for Being Insufficiently Specific

Christopher L. Voltz, cvoltz@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5580

Methacton Sch. Dist. v. Off. of Open Records of Cmmw., 250 C.D. 2021, 2021 WL 6122163, at *1 (Pa. Cmmw. Dec. 28, 2021). The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania holds that a request for the emails of four individuals over a short timeframe is sufficiently specific under Section 703 of the Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”) even though the request did not identify a subject matter (i.e., a transaction or activity of the agency).

BACKGROUND

In Methacton School District, the Requester sought copies of all emails sent and received by four specific school district (“District”) employees for four discrete one-month time periods.  The District performed a search using the parameters of Requester’s requests and extracted responsive emails.  However, after extraction, the District stored the potentially responsive emails in an electronic folder without reviewing them.  Instead, the District denied the requests for being insufficiently specific under Section 703 of the RTKL for failure to identify a subject matter in the request.

The Office of Open Records (“OOR”) issued a final determination directing the District to provide all responsive emails within thirty days. The District appealed to the trial court. The trial court affirmed, rejecting the District’s argument that the request was insufficiently specific because it lacked a specific email subject or search keywords.

The District then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the order of the Trial Court.

DISCUSSION

Section 703 of the RTKL provides that a “request should identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested ….” 65 P.S. § 67.703. The three-part balancing test for considering a challenge to the specificity of a request requires an examination of the extent to which the request sets forth: (1) the subject matter of the request; (2) the scope of the documents sought; and (3) the timeframe relating to the records sought.  Generally, the subject matter of the request must identify the “transaction or activity” of the agency for which the record is sought. 

Because the request included a finite timeline and specific email addresses, the Court concluded that parts two and three of the balancing test had been satisfied.  In addition, the Court rejected the District’s argument that a Requester must precisely identify the subject matter of the requested record.  Instead, the Court explained that the absence of a stated subject matter is only one factor to consider in determining whether the request is sufficiently specific. 

In the context of requests for emails, the Court stated that when a request includes limited specific timeframes and email addresses, a requester’s failure to identify a subject matter may be accorded less weight in ascertaining whether the request is sufficiently specific.

In the present case, the lack of subject matter was given very little weight because the District was actually able to locate responsive records.  The Court noted that the purpose of the balancing test is to make it possible for agencies like the District to locate responsive documents and, in this case, “the request was obviously sufficiently specific because the [District] has already identified potential records included within the request.”

Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Request was sufficiently specific and affirmed the order of the trial court.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

Open Records Officers should not automatically deny RTKL requests for being insufficiently specific simply because the request lacks one of the three parts of the balancing test because, if a court or the OOR later determines that a request is specific enough, the consequences of solely relying on the position that a request is insufficiently specific can be severe.

As noted above, in Methacton School District, the District did not review the emails it located and, therefore, did not raise any other grounds to redact or withhold any of the responsive emails it had located.  When the Court ultimately found that the Request was sufficiently specific, it did not allow the District to redact or remove nonpublic information or records.  According to the Court, the District should have reviewed the located emails for the presence of exemptions and protected information and it was too late to seek redaction of the emails or to argue that any of them do not constitute records subject to disclosure.

Accordingly, Open Records Officers should consult with their solicitors prior to denying a vague, annoying and burdensome request for being insufficiently specific, especially if they are able to locate records that might be responsive.

For more information on Right-To-Know Law issues, contact Chris Voltz at cvoltz@tuckerlaw.com or click here to access Tucker Arensberg’s Right-To-Know Law Blog.

June 16, 2022

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