The Commonwealth Court recently decided an issue of first impression and ruled that the term “individual” in Section 708(b)(13) of the RTKL does not include “corporations.” In the case styled, California University of Pennsylvania v. Bradshaw, 210 A.3d 1134 (Pa. Cmwlth. May 31, 2019), the court upheld a final determination by the Office of Open Records (OOR) which required the public university involved to produce records regarding donations to a private foundation that raised funds and managed donations for the public university.
This matter involved a request for records related to donations from Manheim Corporation to the Foundation for California University of Pennsylvania regarding donations from Manheim to the Foundation for a certain period of time, and the records identifying the use of those funds. The OOR concluded that the requested donation records were not exempt, and therefore granted the request for the records. The University appealed.
On appeal, the court addressed whether the requested records were exempt from access under Section 708(b)(13) of the RTKL. The University unsuccessfully argued that the word “individual” should be construed under the RTKL to include “corporations” as well as natural persons. The distinction in this case is determinative, because in some instances the records of individual donors are exempted from mandatory disclsoure, as are such things as individual medical records and the like.
The University also unsuccessfully argued that the OOR erred in determining that the University must disclose donation records of the Foundation.
Highlights of Court’s Analysis:
The court reiterated the presumption that all public records are accessible under the RTKL unless the agency proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the record is exempt from disclosure. The court explained that because of this presumption of accessibility and the underlying purposes of the RTKL, exceptions to access are to be narrowly construed.
The court reviewed the statutory definitions of both the words “individual” and “person” under Section 1991 of the Statutory Construction Act.
The court observed that the RTKL does not explicitly define either term, although the Statutory Construction Act defines both. Section 1991 of the Act defines a corporation as a “person” but not as an “individual.” The court reasoned that the use by the General Assembly of those two terms in Section 708 of the RTKL was deliberate, and instances of the term “individual” in that section “obviously apply to natural persons only.” The court provided several examples in the statute of how the word “individual” is defined in different contexts.
Thus, the court held that under Section 708(b)(13) of the RTKL, the records requested are not exempt because Manheim Corporation is not an individual for purposes of that section.
In addition, the court noted that there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the University to perform fundraising functions on behalf of the University. In this context, that activity was a governmental function for the public university.
Section 506(d)(1) of the RTKL provides that records of a private entity, engaged by the public agency, directly related to governmental functions–are public records of the agency and accessible through the RTKL.
The court also instructed that the Foundation was engaged in performing a governmental function to the extent that it fundraises and manages donations on behalf of the University, thereby making records directly related to those activities public records of the University. Therefore, the University must disclose them pursuant to Section 506(d) of the RTKL as it would any responsive records in its own actual possession. See footnote 11 which rejects arguments by the University that the records were not in its possession, because the RTKL exposes to public access those records that a contractor of the public agency maintains that relate to the governmental function.