In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine the scope of the “personal security” exception to disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law (“RTKL”). The Court concluded that the home addresses of public employees are exempt from RTKL disclosure pursuant to the personal safety exception.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) commenced an action before the Commonwealth Court, seeking to have the court determine whether the Office of Open Records (OOR) was precluded from ordering the release of the home addresses of school employees that have been requested pursuant to the RTKL. A decision was issued by the Commonwealth Court in which it granted OOR’s preliminary objections and determined OOR was not an appropriate defendant because it was a quasi-judicial tribunal with no interest in the outcome of the adjudication. The court also questioned whether it had jurisdiction over the matter and whether the PSEA’s members had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in their home addresses. On appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the decision. It concluded that public school employees have a colorable interest in protecting their home addresses from disclosure, yet the RTKL does not make them parties to, or give them notice of, RTKL requests or appeal proceedings. Because the RTKL, as presently implemented by the OOR, failed to provide public school employees with any administrative or judicial method of obtaining redress, it was appropriate for the OOR to be a defendant in PSEA’s action. The Court remanded the matter for further proceedings.
PSEA then filed an amended petition, which asserted the RTKL violated its members’ fundamental constitutional due process rights, and was fatally flawed because it lacked any mechanism to ensure they had advance notice and an opportunity to be heard before the release of their personal data and an opportunity to challenge the release. A divided Commonwealth Court granted OOR’s motion for summary judgement on some claims, concluding that neither the Pennsylvania Constitution nor the RTKL protects the home addresses of public school employees from disclosure in response to RTKL requests. The court also granted PSEA’s cross-motion for summary judgment, concluding the RTKL was procedurally deficient because it did not provide affected individuals with necessary due process when their personal information was requested.
On further appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court again reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision. It found that PSEA members had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in their home addresses that fell under the personal security exception to the RTKL. It then applied a balancing test, established in decisions related to the Right-to-Know Act—the predecessor to the RTKL—that weighed the public’s interest in disclosure against the individual’s right to privacy and personal security. Applying this test, the Court concluded that PSEA members had a very strong interest in protecting their home addresses, while OOR had presented no public benefit or interest in disclosure. This information was therefore exempt from disclosure. Although the procedural due process claims were mooted by this determination, the Court proceeded to scold OOR for failing to take necessary actions to provide essential procedural due process in connection with the RTKL request process, and essentially delegating these procedures to individual government agencies.
Click here to read: PSEA v. DCED, 22 MAP 2015 (Pa. Oct. 18, 2016).