OOR has authority to interpret federal law under RTKL

Department of Labor and Industry v. Heltzel
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
No. 1653 CD 2013

May 5, 2014

The Commonwealth Court held that the Office of Open Records has the authority to interpret federal laws in determining whether a record is public under the Right to Know Law. The Court further held that where a federal statute outlines procedures for granting public access to information, that law does not address whether a record is considered public under the RTKL.


William Heltzel, an investigative reporter for PublicSource, submitted a RTKL request to the Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) seeking records related to Pennsylvania’s hazardous chemicals inventory database, a catalogue of information compiled when facilities submit hazardous chemical inventory forms as required by the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).

L&I denied the request, claiming that the records fell under the public safety and physical security exemptions of the RTKL.

Heltzel appealed to the Office of Open Records. OOR ruled that the records were required to be disclosed because they were public under EPCRA, subject to certain redactions of confidential information. L&I then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that OOR did not have the authority to interpret a federal statute and that the records were exempt under the RTKL.

Commonwealth Court Decision

The first question the Commonwealth Court considered was whether OOR has the authority to interpret a federal law, such as the EPCRA. The court explained that under the RTKL records are presumed to be public unless they are subject to one of the RTKL’s exemptions, protected by a privilege, or exempt “under any other federal or state law.”

Because the RTKL defines public records by referencing federal laws, the court reasoned that the RTKL explicitly gives OOR the authority to interpret those laws.

Next, the court considered whether the requested records are considered public records accessible through the RTKL.

EPCRA states that inventory forms “shall be made available to the general public . . . during normal working hours” and provides that “any person may request” the forms “with respect to a specific facility” in writing.

The court stated that the RTKL distinguishes between whether other statutes establish the public “nature” of records and whether those statutes provide a mechanism for accessing records. Here, EPCRA provided a means for accessing inventory forms, but does not declare that the forms are public records. Thus, according to the court, the federal law did not establish the “public nature” of the information requested.

The court also ruled that EPCRA’s “means of access” conflicted with the RTKL, which, for example, does not require requests to be limited to seeking forms for a specific facility.

Finally, the court explained that because EPCRA “does not establish [the] public nature of the requested records, the RTKL exceptions asserted [by L&I] must be considered” to determine whether the requested records must be produced.

The court sent the case back to the OOR to consider those exceptions, explaining that the court’s “fact-finding role is best reserved for unique occasions, such as where the record is exhaustive, efficiency if maximized, and OOR initially considered the exceptions asserted.”