In an apparent issue of first impression, the Commonwealth Court granted attorneys’ fees in connection with an enforcement action under the RTKL. In Uniontown Newspapers Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 197 A.3d 825 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018), the court granted attorneys’ fees to a newspaper in connection with fees incurred to enforce a decision of the OOR requiring the Department of Corrections (DOC) to produce the requested documents.

Procedural Background:

The Commonwealth Court previously issued an opinion in this matter finding bad faith on the part of the DOC under the RTKL. See Uniontown Newspapers Inc .v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 185 A.3d 1161 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018).  Subsequent to that decision, the requester submitted a notice of intent to seek attorneys’ fees under the RTKL, and submitted legal invoices with its fee petition.  The court held a hearing requesting evidence of what constitutes “reasonable attorneys’ fee” under the RTKL.

The court explained that the requester enlisted the ancillary appellate jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court to enforce a final determination in its favor by the OOR.

Legal Basis for Award of Attorneys’ Fees:

The court provided an extensive analysis under Section 1304(a) of the RTKL, 65 P.S. § 67.1304(a), which allows a court to award attorneys’ fees if the court reverses a final determination or grants access, when either: “(1) an agency acted with willful or wanton disregard of the rights of access in bad faith; or (2) an agency’s denial was not based on a reasonable interpretation of the law.” See Section 1304(a).

The court found that the DOC, the receiving agency, denied access willfully and with knowing disregard of the rights to access of the requester, and otherwise acted in bad faith as explained in the court’s prior opinion finding bad faith. The requester sought enforcement of the reversal of the DOC’s denial by the OOR, which qualifies it for an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. See footnote 8 and accompanying text.

Reasonableness of Attorneys’ Fees:

The court explained that a determination of the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees requires that the court review the amount of work done, the character of services rendered, the difficulty of the problem involved, and the professional skill and standing of the attorney. The court also considered the following factors:  the importance of the litigation; the amount of money or value of the rights involved; the degree of responsibility incurred; the results counsel obtained; and the client’s ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services rendered.

The court found that there was no requirement that it review each invoice on a line-by-line basis.

The court held that the standard for recovery under Section 1304(a) of the RTKL is not to award all attorneys’ fees and costs incurred and paid, but rather only reasonable attorneys’ fees. The court was critical of the paucity of evidence in the record as to the reasonableness of the amount of fees–other than the affidavits from the attorneys and the testimony of the client.  Although not explicitly stated, the implication in the court’s opinion was that the court would have preferred additional testimony or affidavits from a third-party qualified to opine about the reasonableness of fees. See footnote 11 and accompanying text.

The court also explained that fees would only be awarded on aspects of the litigation on which the requester prevailed.  Ultimately, after reviewing the fees sought, the court granted approximately $118,000 in attorneys’ fees, as compared to the request for over $200,000 in fees.