A recent Final Determination from the Office of Open Records (“OOR”) prohibited the disclosure of the names and addresses of licensees in response to a request for dog license records in Mercer County. In the matter of Bush v. Mercer County, OOR Dkt. No. AP 2019-2211 (Dec. 30, 2019), the decision addressing the titular issue provided citations to many appellate court decisions to support its conclusion that the right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution, as interpreted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, prohibits the disclosure of certain private information in circumstances such as those involved in this case.
Why This Decision Remains Notable: This decision is noteworthy because it exemplifies the type of personal licensee data that might not be accessible under the RTKL due to the state right to privacy. Many decisions highlighted on these pages have described the contours of this state privacy right.
Short Overview of Background Facts and Procedural History:
A request was made for dog license records that included the license number, the name of the dog and dog’s age, the breed, the owner’s name and address, as well as an email address of the owner. The county denied the request based on Section 705 of the RTKL which does not require an agency to create a record that does not exist, or compile, format or organize a record. The county also refused to produce the information requested based on the defense that disclosure could promote the theft of dogs.
Upon appeal to the OOR, the request was granted in part and denied in part. The OOR prohibited the disclosure of the names of the licensees and their home addressed. It also required that the dog license numbers be withheld, in part because based on the public data on the website of the county, if a dog license number was entered online, one could determine the name of the license holder.
Overview of Legal Principles Addressed:
The Final Determination of the OOR in this matter recounted the basics of the RTKL, and its doctrinal underpinning, including the presumption that all records in possession of a local agency are presumed public unless specifically exempt under the RTKL or protected by a privilege, judicial order or decree. See 65 P.S. § 67.305. Section 708 of the RTKL places the burden of proof on the public body to demonstrate that a record is exempt.
Reasoning of the Decision:
The OOR determined that even though the information requested is not maintained in a single location, the county did not demonstrate that it is unable to produce at least some of the information in the database. Merely because a “custom query” is required, does not provide a sufficient basis to allow an agency to refuse to provide the requested information.
However, the OOR determined that the names and home addresses could be withheld based on the right to privacy under the Pennsylvania Constitution, that allows an agency to withhold certain types of personal information based on a balancing test. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has determined that the request for personal information from public records may be exempt from disclosure based on a balancing test that weighs the interest of an individual and information on privacy, with the interest of the public in disclosure–and personal information may only be released when the public benefit outweighs the privacy interests. See Pa. State Educ. Ass’n v. Commonwealth, 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016).
The key legal principle explained by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the Pa. State Educ. Ass’n case recognizes that certain types of information, including home addresses, by their very nature implicate privacy concerns. Id. at 156-57. Telephone numbers and social security numbers have also been found by the Pennsylvania high court to come within this privacy right based on a balancing test. See also Chester Housing Authority v. Polaha, 173 A.3d 1240, 1252 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017) (holding that constitutional privacy protection applies when home addresses are requested, regardless of whether the names or identity of the resident is attached).
This ruling explained that the factors to consider in connection with a balancing test require an assessment of: whether the information is traditionally public; whether an individual has a cognizable interest in the status of the records; whether the record is personal; and whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in that information. See Butler Area School District v. Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, 172 A.3d 1173 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2007).
The OOR applied three factors in their analysis of the balancing test. First, the right of privacy has been previously applied by appellate Pennsylvania decisions to the names of private individuals where the identity of the individual was submitted for the purpose of licensure, and where there is only a nominal public benefit in publication. Secondly, the OOR determined whether the information sought is sufficiently personal in nature, as compared to business information that is not constitutionally protected, but might be subject to other statutory protections from non-disclosure under the RTKL. See, e.g., Mission Pa., LLC v. McKelvey, 212 A.3d 119, 133 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2019).
Finally, the last factor in the balancing test requires the OOR to examine whether an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their name. In this case, that depends primarily upon the reason the agency possesses the information. The OOR concluded that a reasonable person could expect the information provided for the license to remain confidential. Slip op. at 8.
When explaining its reasoning in connection with the balancing test, the OOR observed that the question is whether the public benefit in releasing the requested dog license information is greater than the privacy rights of the owner. In this instance, the requestor did not articulate any public purpose or benefit for the release of the requested private information, whereas the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stressed the importance of privacy in residential home addresses. See Murray v. Pa. Dep’t of Health, OOR Dkt. A.P. 2018-0461, 2017 Pa. O.O.R.D. LEXIS 1361.
Likewise, there was no argument made to support a compelling public interest or benefit in the disclosure of the names of dog owners, and therefore, the names of the dog owners were permitted to be withheld also.