A recent decision by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) clarified that a requester is not entitled to access to government computers in order to review data. Cap v. Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority, O.O.R. Docket No.: AP 2018-2059 (Dec. 21, 2018). But a later decision involving the same requester did allow a modified request for more specific data. See Cap v. Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority, O.O.R. Docket No.: AP 2018-2062 (Dec. 26, 2018). N.B. The same requester and the same agency involved in the foregoing two decisions were the subject of seven (7) OOR Final Determinations between Dec. 20, 2018 and Dec. 26, 2018, as listed on the OOR website.
Why These Two Decisions Are Noteworthy: The first OOR Final Determination listed above clarifies that the RTK Law does not support a request for government data which is, in essence, a request to access government computers to review data on those computers in order to determine what data will be requested. The second decision listed above provides a roadmap of sorts for how to navigate around that limitation.
Brief Background: The first decision referenced above involves a request to a local transportation authority to “inspect and view” all video cameras stored in a closed circuit TV on a particular bus. The request specified that after viewing of those videos, the requester would determine which specific parts of the video would be requested to be copied. The authority denied the request and the requester appealed to the OOR. But the OOR granted a slightly revised request from the same person in a decision a few days later.
The agency explained that the process to access the video included the following: the on-board storage device on the bus must be connected to proprietary viewing software. According to the agency involved, it is often challenging to locate a particular event on a particular bus at a particular time. However, the OOR explained the efforts the agency must demonstrate in order to fulfill their duty to exercise good faith to locate records that they or agents under their control may have.
- After reviewing the purpose of the RTK Law and the rationale for promoting access to government records and transparency, the decision also described the presumption that public records must be disclosed and that the government agency has the burden of proof to explain why a particular record is exempted or otherwise not available for production.
- The decision refers to Section 708(a) as the statutory basis that requires the government agency to establish why a particular public record is exempt from production.
Limitations of the RTK Law
- Section 701(b) of the RTKL expressly states that: “Nothing in this act shall be considered to require access to any computer either of an agency or an individual employee of an agency.” 65 P.S. § 67.701(b).
- Although records of an investigation may be subject to a separate exemption, that issue was not decided because of another basis for an exemption in this matter.
- The decision referred to prior rulings which established that there is no right to access a computer to review data that reside in government computers or to have electronic access to the email accounts of government employees. See Donahue v. Luzerne County, OOR Dkt. AP 2013-1394, 2013 PA O.O.R.D. LEXIS 821.
- The first listed decision of the OOR found that inspection of the requested video would require access to government computers utilizing proprietary software, and that while agency videos are records that are generally subject to access under the RTKL, the agency is not required to provide access to its computers to allow for the review and inspection on those computers of responsive records. Therefore the request was denied. See also Wachter v. City of Warren, OOR Dkt. AP 2015-2654, 2015 PA O.O.R.D. LEXIS 2191.
Request Granted for Separate Description of Similar Data Sought by Same Requester
The second decision listed at the beginning of this post involved the same requester and the same agency, with a different result.
- The issue of the agency’s compliance with its duty to make a good faith search to find the requested records was addressed by quotes from appellate court decisions explaining that obligation:
In response to a request for records, “an agency shall make a good faith effort to determine if … the agency has possession, custody or control of the record[.]” 65 P.S. § 67.901. While the RTKL does not define the term “good faith effort” as used in Section 901 of the RTKL, in Uniontown Newspapers, Inc. v. Pa. Dep’t of Corr., the Commonwealth Court recently stated:
As part of a good faith search, the open records officer has a duty to advise all custodians of potentially responsive records about the request, and to obtain all potentially responsive records from those in possession…. When records are not in an agency’s physical possession, an open records officer has a duty to contact agents within its control, including third-party contractors…. After obtaining potentially responsive records, an agency has the duty to review the records and assess their public nature under … the RTKL.
185 A.3d 1161, 1171-72 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2018) (citations omitted); see also Rowles v. Rice Twp., OOR Dkt. AP 2014-0729, 2014 PA O.O.R.D. LEXIS 602 (citing Judicial Watch, Inc. v. United States Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 857 F. Supp. 2d 129, 138-139 (D.D.C. 2012)) (citations omitted). Additionally, the Commonwealth Court has held that an open records officer’s inquiry of agency members may constitute a “good faith effort” to locate records, stating that open-records officers have:
a duty to inquire of [agency personnel] as to whether he or she was in the possession, custody, or control of any of the … requested emails that could be deemed public and, if so, whether the emails were, in fact, public and subject to disclosure or exemption from access by Requestor. 6
Mollick v. Twp. of Worcester, 32 A.3d 859, 875 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011); see In Re Silberstein, 11 A.3d 629, 634 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2011) (holding that it is “the open-records officer’s duty and responsibility” to both send an inquiry of agency personnel concerning a request and to determine whether to deny access).
- The OOR determined that the agency did not satisfy its good faith duty, and that mere inconvenience or the burdensome nature of the search was not a defense.
- The agency’s defense under Section 705 was also rejected that finding the requested video segment would require it to “create a record that does not exist”.
- A defense under Section 708(b)(17), that the record was an exempt non-criminal investigation was also rejected, as there was insufficient support presented by the agency that such an alleged investigation took place or was taking place.
- The agency was required to produce a copy of the requested record/video.