Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection v. Legere
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
No. 3 C.D. 2012
July 31, 2012
The Commonwealth Court ruled that a request for records under the Right to Know Law (“RTKL”) is sufficiently specific if it requests a “clearly-defined universe of documents,” regardless of how many documents that universe may contain. The court also ruled that any agency receiving a request for records under the RTKL must undertake a physical search for the requested records.
Laura Legere, a reporter for The Times-Tribune, requested records from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”).
Specifically, she sought all “Section 208 determination letters” and orders issued by DEP to oil and gas well operators since January 1, 2008.
The DEP granted part of the request, but denied the rest stating, among other things, that the request was not sufficiently specific and that DEP’s system of maintaining files did not allow for it to search for all of the requested records.
Legere appealed to the Office of Open Records (“OOR”). The OOR ruled that the request was sufficiently specific and that DEP failed to establish that any exemption protected the records from disclosure. DEP appealed the ruling.
Commonwealth Court decision
The court affirmed the ruling of the OOR.
The court first held that because the request sought “a clearly-defined universe of documents,” it was sufficiently specific. The court explained that the request did not require DEP to make any judgments fit within the request – they “either are or are not” Section 208 letters and orders.
Next, the court ruled that just because a request may be burdensome, it is not overbroad. The court determined that any burden in this case was caused by DEP’s records management system, not the request itself.
As the court reasoned, “an agency’s failure to maintain the files in a way necessary to meet its obligations under the RTKL should not be held against the requestor.”
Moreover, the law requires agencies to undertake a good faith effort to determine whether it possesses the requested records. Consistent with this obligation, agencies must conduct a physical search for the records.
“There is simply nothing in the RTKL that authorizes an agency to refuse to search for and produce documents based on the contention it would be too burdensome to do so.”
Finally, the court refused to give the DEP another opportunity to identify specific exemptions under the RTKL to justify denying Legere’s request. DEP had “direct knowledge” about the contents of the requested records, but was unable to cite any reason the records were exempt because it failed to search for the records as required under the law.
Ultimately, the court concluded that it would “not reward DEP’s failure to timely adhere to the RTKL by granting it yet another opportunity to impede access to the records.”