How to Appeal an Agency’s Denial of Your Request

The agency denies your request in full or in part. Now what?

Where and how you appeal that denial depends on the agency from which you requested records. Most appeals should be directed to the Office of Open Records (known as the “OOR”). But, some agencies – including the Attorney General, State Treasurer, Auditor General, Legislative Agencies, and Law Enforcement Agencies – have their own Appeals Officers. If your appeal involves one of those agencies, you should contact that agency to obtain information about the appeal procedure. Also, please feel free to contact the PAFOIC for guidance.

Appeals to the OOR follow a straightforward process, which is described below.

Appeal to the Office of Open Records

  • Appeals must be filed within 15 business days from the date that the agency mails its response to your request. A business day is any day in which the offices of the agency are open. It does not include weekends or holidays. If you miss this deadline, your appeal will not move forward.
  • Fill out an OOR Appeals Form and include the following information and documents:
  • A copy of your original request.
  • A copy of the agency’s denial letter, unless your request was “deemed denied” (in other words, the agency did not respond to your request at all). If your request was deemed denied, when you complete the OOR Appeals Form, simply note that the agency failed to respond to your request and that it is deemed denied.
  • State the grounds on which you believe the record is a public record – you must state specifically why you believe the requested record is a public record. A general statement asserting that the record you requested is a “public record” is not sufficient. You need to explain why the record is considered a public record under the Right to Know Law.
  • You should address all reasons for the agency’s decision to deny your request. For instance, if the agency includes four reasons in its denial letter for why your requested records are not public, make sure to address all four reasons in your appeal. If you do not, you are at risk of losing your appeal if a ground for denial you fail to address is deemed to be legitimate.
  • Important Note: During an appeal, you cannot change the substance of your request. You must continue to advocate for your request, as made to the agency originally, or make a new request.
  • For instance, in of Corrections v. Disability Rights Network, an agency asserted that it did not have records responsive to a request. During the appeal, the requester argued that the agency possessed the information being sought, even if it was contained in records other than those specifically sought in the original RTKL request. The Court denied the appeal, ruling that a requester cannot change its request during the appeals process.
  • When you file an appeal, the agency will be provided with an opportunity to respond.
  • The OOR may hold hearings, review the records itself to determine whether they are exempt (called an “in camera review”), or request additional information from you or the agency.
  • If the OOR requests additional information from you, make sure to provide that information within the given timeframe. This time period will usually be seven days.
  • The OOR has 30 days to decide your appeal from the day it receives the appeal. (The OOR’s final decisions are called “Final Determinations.”) From time to time, the OOR might seek more time to issue a Final Determination. As the requester, the law gives you the power to decide whether to extend the time period for the OOR to make its Final Determination. Neither the OOR nor the agency has that power. Unless your request is time sensitive or there is some reason to require a decision within 30 days, you should give very serious consideration to requests by the OOR for an extension.
  • Any OOR decision is binding, but may be appealed. Where you appeal an OOR Final Determination depends on the type of agency to which you submitted the request in the first place (refer to the diagram below).
  • If your request was submitted to a Local Agency, your appeal will proceed to the Court of Common Pleas of the county in which the agency is located.
  • If your request was submitted to a Commonwealth Agency, your appeal will proceed directly to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
  • Once you determine the court to which your appeal will proceed, consult that court’s specific appeals procedures.
  • Either you or the agency may appeal a Final Determination of the OOR.
  • In general, the OOR does not have the power to enforce its Final Determination.
  • Before an OOR proceeding or during the appeals process, the OOR or court may allow an “intervenor” to become involved in the case. An intervenor is a third party (not the agency to which you submitted the request), typically an organization, person, or another agency with a direct interest in the appeal due to the substance of the records requested. If an intervenor is added to the appeal, it is recommended that you reach out to the PAFOIC for guidance. For more on intervenors and an example of such a scenario, consult the case summary of Allegheny County Dept. of Administrative Services v. A Second Chance Inc.