In this interlocutory appeal from a decision of the Office of Open Records (OOR), the Commonwealth Court held that government entities withholding information subject to a Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) request must provide affidavits with sufficient information to demonstrate why the information is non-disclosable or OOR has broad discretion to order in camera review of the information at issue.

The Township of Worcester received a RTKL request for certain records in its possession.  The Township denied part of the request on the basis that the requested records contained internal, predecisional deliberations and were protected under the attorney-client and work-product privileges. The requestor appealed to the OOR and sought in camera review of the records at issue.  OOR issued an order directing the Township to produce copies of the disputed records for in camera inspection, and that the Township provide a privilege log.

The Township appealed this order to the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County and OOR motioned to quash on the basis that the order was not an appealable. The trial court determined that OOR’s interlocutory order was an appealable collateral order. It further determined that the Township did not have to produce the records for in camera review.  OOR appealed.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the lower court’s determination that OOR’s order was appealable, but reversed its decision regarding producing the documents for in camera review. It found that whether OOR could order in camera review was conceptually distinct from the underlying RTKL request, that the scope of OOR’s right to order in camera review was an important issue, and that the issue would be irreparably lost if the Township prevailed before the OOR. Shifting to the issue of in camera review, the court determined that the Township’s affidavits had not provided sufficient information to demonstrate why the requested records were non-disclosable. Therefore OOR was well within its authority to order in camera review and, at a minimum, a privilege log. The court ended its opinion by stating that it could hardly imagine any significant public policy interest supporting judicial review of non-final OOR orders in the future and that it would have to be a very rare case to support interlocutory review of a similar OOR order.

Click here to read: Twp. of Worcester v. OOR, 711 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. Jan. 8, 2016).

Edited by:

Sivertsen_BLOG     Zachary A. Sivertsen, Esq.