5 Top Appellate Court Decisions in 2015

Every year, dozens of RTKL cases are decided by the Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court, and county Courts of Common Pleas.

Here, in no particular order, are five of the most significant decisions from 2015.

Pa. Dep’t of Education v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
119 A.3d 1121 (Pa. Commw. Ct. July 14, 2015)
When the specificity of a request is at issue, Commonwealth Court uses a three-part balancing test, “examining the extent to which the request sets forth (1) the subject matter of the request; (2) the scope of documents sought; and (3) the timeframe for which records are sought.”

Pa. Office of Attorney General v. Phila. Inquirer
127 A.3d 57 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Nov. 19, 2015)
The RTKL’s definitions of “record” and “public record” were examined. Commonwealth Court held that “[t]he fact that [emails] were sent, received or retained in violation of OAG policy does not transform what was not a public record into a public record under the RTKL. For emails to qualify as records ‘of’ an agency, we only look to see if the subject-matter of the records relate to the agency’s operations.”

Pa. Dep’t of Labor & Industry v. Earley
126 A.3d 355 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Sept. 9, 2015)
Regarding email records, Commonwealth Court held that “When an individual deletes an email from his or her email account … that does not mean that the email is necessarily deleted. Those emails remain on the mail server until they are deleted in accordance with a retention schedule. … [T]o establish that the email records do not exist, the Department must also establish that they no longer exist on the mail server.”

Pa. State Police v. Grove
119 A.3d 1102 (Pa. Commw. Ct. July 7, 2015)
Video recordings made by police car dashcams (a.k.a. mobile video recordings, or MVRs) are not inherently investigative records, although they may include investigative information which needs to be redacted: “The mere fact that a record has some connection to a criminal proceeding does not automatically exempt it under Section 708(b)(16) of the RTKL or CHRIA. … PSP is entitled to redact the portions of MVRs that contain actual investigative information … but may not withhold an entire MVR on the basis that part of it is investigative.” (NOTE: This case is now pending in the Supreme Court.)

Pa. State Police v. Muller
124 A.3d 761 (Pa. Commw. Ct. June 30, 2015)
Reinforcing the need for agencies to provide evidence when a case is before the OOR, Commonwealth Court held that “[a]n agency is not entitled to ignore its burden to show an exemption from disclosure before OOR and rely on supplementation of the record in this Court to avoid the consequences of that conduct.”

Other significant cases from 2015 — and previous years — are available on the OOR website.

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