This Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) dispute involved fourteen consolidated cases. Fourteen State System of Higher Education Universities (the Universities) appealed from an Office of Open Records (OOR) final determination that granted two requesters access to records related to the Universities’ budgets and finances. The Commonwealth Court was required to address (1) whether the requests were specific enough to enable the Universities to locate responsive records, (2) whether the large number of records requested made the request non-specific, and (3) whether the Universities should be given more time to review the records due to the large number of records requested. The court held that an agency is not relieved of its duty to produce responsive records due to the size of the request, but an agency may be granted a time extension by the OOR if the agency can show that more time is truly needed for proper review.
In 2015, the requesters submitted RTKL requests for any and all correspondence regarding budget reports, financial reports, and audited financial reports dating back to January 2010 (Item 1). They also requested any and all transitional or training documents given to new hires in the Universities’ financial and administrative offices during the same time period (Item 2), as well as any and all written instructions given to current and past employees regarding completion of or feedback on the budget reports, financial reports, and audited financial reports (Item 3). The Universities invoked a thirty-day extension to respond but later requested another thirty-day extension, citing the high volume of records to be produced. The Universities also asked the requesters to provide more specific search terms to aid in reviewing the records. The requesters agreed to the additional thirty-day extension but did not provide search terms. After the Universities requested a third thirty-day extension, the requests were deemed denied.
The requesters filed an appeal with the OOR. The Universities argued that the requests were insufficiently specific to permit production of responsive records and supplied affidavits from employees who conducted the search describing the high number of records that had to be reviewed. The requesters did not provide their own position statement. The OOR issued a final determination that stated all of the requests were sufficiently specific to permit disclosure.
On appeal, the Universities first contended that the requests were not specific enough because they failed to identify the subject matter, scope, and timeframe of the records requested. The Commonwealth Court used a three-part test to determine whether or not the requests were sufficiently specific: (1) the subject matter must identify the transaction or activity of the agency, (2) the scope of the request must identify a discrete group of documents by type or recipient, but a request for “all records” may be specific enough if confined to a particular recipient(s), and (3) the timeframe should identify a finite period of time. The court held that the request for Item 1 was specific because it sought correspondence from identifiable officials from known universities within a definite time period. Similarly, the request for Item 2 referred to training and transitional materials solely for new hires at the Universities. Therefore, it was also sufficiently specific. Finally, the request for Item 3 was sufficient specific because it referred to instructions provided current and past employees regarding completion of or feedback on specific budget and financial reports since 2010.
Having determined that the requests were all sufficiently specific, the Commonwealth Court turned to the Universities’ contention that the large volume of records requested made the requests non-specific. The court held that an agency is not excused from its duty to disclose responsive documents just because a request is for a large number of records. However, if a request is so large than an agency does not have the time to process it in a timely manner, the OOR may grant an extension so long as the agency provides a valid estimate of the time review will take. Therefore, the Universities were not relieved of providing responsive records to the requesters, but they were allowed an extension if they could show that additional time was needed.
Click here to read: Pa. State System of Higher Educ. v. Assoc. of State Coll. & Univ. Faculties, No. 2126 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Ct. July 6, 2016).
Bob Turchick, Law Clerk
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