Bowling v. Office of Open Records
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
No. 20 MAP 2011
August 20, 2013
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a court reviewing a final determination of the Office of Open Records need not defer to the OOR’s decision in considering whether an agency properly denied a Right to Know Law request. Instead, courts should broadly review the OOR’s factual findings and legal conclusions, and courts can consider evidence that was not submitted to the OOR in making their decisions.
Brian Bowling, an employee of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, submitted a Right to Know Law request to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency seeking invoices and contracts. PEMA denied the request in part, prompting Bowling to appeal to the Office of Open Records.
The OOR denied the appeal, and Bowling appealed to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court reversed the OOR decision and held that a court reviewing an OOR final determination may substitute its own findings of fact for that of the OOR and may consider evidence that was not before the OOR. At the OOR’s request, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court’s decision focused on two questions that are critical to courts reviewing OOR decisions: the standard of review and the scope of review. The standard of review refers to how much deference a court should give to OOR’s factual and legal rulings. The scope of review refers to what evidence a court can examine when considering the OOR’s rulings.
Following a detailed analysis of the language and history of the RTKL, the Supreme Court determined that courts should exercise de novo review when parties appeal from OOR decisions. This standard of review means that courts should not defer at all to the OOR’s factual findings or its rulings on legal issues. Instead, courts should reach their own findings of fact and conclusions of law.
To allow courts to fulfill this broad standard of review, the Supreme Court held that courts have the broadest scope of review permitted under the law. Thus, courts are not limited to considering only the evidence submitted to the OOR; they can consider additional evidence submitted by the parties on appeal.