Federal court decision doesn’t prevent RTKL access

City of Allentown v. Brenan
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
No. 1347 C.D.2011

July 25, 2012

The Commonwealth Court ruled that a judge’s decision in a federal case to not compel disclosure of records in civil discovery did not prevent an attorney from obtaining those same records through a Right to Know Law (RTKL) request.


The requester, Denis Brenan, was the plaintiff’s attorney in a federal case against the City of Allentown. In that case, the judge set a deadline for discovery — a period of time when both parties collect evidence before trial.

After that deadline passed, Brenan filed a motion asking the judge to order the city to disclose incident reports and meeting agendas. The judge denied the motion because the discovery deadline had passed.

Subsequently, Brenan filed a RTKL request with the city for the same records. The city denied the request on the grounds that the judge’s order in the federal case exempted the records from disclosure. Brenan appealed to the Office of Open Records (OOR), which allowed Brenan access to the records because the judge did not bar access to the records through the RTKL.

On appeal, the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County affirmed the OOR’s decision. The city appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

Commonwealth Court decision

The city argued that the records Brenan sought were not public records because the RTKL exempts records that are sealed by a federal judicial order.

The court disagreed with this argument, stating that exemptions of the RTKL are to be construed narrowly. The court ruled that the federal judge’s order denied the plaintiff’s motion to compel additional discovery because it was untimely, but the judge never suggested that the records sought in the untimely discovery motion were precluded or protected from disclosure.

As a result, the court affirmed the decision of the Court of Common Pleas and the OOR and required the city to disclose the records under the RTKL.