This synopsis was prepared by Pennsylvania attorney Catherine Olanich Raymond.

On July 28, 2020, the OOR entered a Final Determination holding that a Request defined solely by a collection of broad keywords and a specific time frame is sufficiently specific under the RTKL to be granted.  Dennis Roddy v. Pennsylvania Office of the Governor, OOR Dkt. No. AP 2020-0915 (July 28, 2020).

Background and Facts: 

Requester Dennis Roddy submitted a Request to the Pennsylvania Office of the Governor (“POG”) for copies of all e-mails sent by Julie Slomski between March 1, 2015 and December 31, 2019, containing the following 14 terms:  Logistics Plus, Berlin, Laughlin, Badhams, Erie Public Schools, Erie Schools, Fabrizi, Fabrizio, Aleksandrowicz, Casillo, Petrungar, John Hawkins, $14 million.  POG denied the Request on the ground that it was insufficiently specific, citing 65 P.S. § 67.703 (“Section 703”). Section 703 requires a request to “identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested… .”  On appeal, the Requester took the position that his Request was sufficiently specific.

Analysis and Holding:

In determining whether a particular request is sufficiently specific, OOR applied the three-part test set forth by Commonwealth Court in Pennsylvania Dep’t of Education v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 119 A. 3d 1121 (Pa. Commw. 2015).  First, “[t]he subject matter of the request must identify the ‘transaction or activity’ of the agency for which the record is sought.” Second, the scope of the request must identify a discrete group of documents (e.g., type or recipient). Third, “[t]he timeframe of the request should identify a finite period of time for which the records are sought.” Pennsylvania Dep’t of Education, 119 A. 3d at 1125-26.

Commonwealth Court has emphasized that its three-part test needs to be applied on a flexible, case-by-case basis.  In Roddy, the question was whether the keywords offered were sufficiently specific and whether the timeframe of the request was too long.  OOR concluded that the Request was proper for several reasons.  Though the Request included broad keywords and sought e-mails sent over a 4 1/2 year period, it only asked for document from one person’s e-mail account.  In addition, only 14 keywords appear in the Request, and the time frame element of the Pennsylvania Dep’t of Education analysis is the “most fluid” of the factors considered to determine whether a Request is sufficiently specific.

Bottom Line: 

It is critical to note, in applying the Pennsylvania Dep’t of Education test, that the real objective is to determine whether the information provided in a request, taken as a whole, is sufficient to enable the agency to identify the desired records.  Here, the use of broad keywords and the somewhat lengthy time period did not preclude production under Section 703 because the volume of records sought was limited to a single e-mail account, enabling responsive records to be appropriately targeted.