Levy v. Senate of Pennsylvania
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
No. 2222 C.D. 2010
June 16, 2014
The Commonwealth Court ruled that information in legal bills that reflected clients’ names and the description of work done by lawyers paid by the state Senate must be disclosed under the Right to Know Law and is not exempt as attorney work-product, under grand jury secrecy rules, or by the law’s criminal investigation exception.
Marc Levy, a reporter for the Associated Press, submitted a Right to Know Law request to the Senate of Pennsylvania seeking invoices that the Senate paid for legal representation of Senate Democratic Caucus employees in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Senate granted the request in part, but redacted the names of the employees and the description of legal services.
After earlier rulings by the Commonwealth Court and the Supreme Court, the case returned to the Commonwealth Court, where the Senate argued that the invoices were exempt from disclosure under the work-product doctrine, grand jury secrecy rules, and the RTKL’s criminal investigation exception.
Commonwealth Court Decision
Before the Commonwealth Court, the Senate argued that if any portion of a record is exempt, an agency can withhold the record as a whole. The court explained that “an agency must raise all its challenges before the fact-finder closes the record” — that is, before the time expires to submit evidence before an appeals officer or court (whichever decides the facts of a case).
In this case, the Senate did not raise this issue the first time that the case was before the court, so the court refused to consider it. In addition, although the court did not rule on the Senate’s argument, the court noted that the Supreme Court had “expressed doubts about the merits” of that argument previously.
The court then turned its attention to the Senate’s substantive arguments for withholding the invoices. It explained that the attorney work-product privilege protects an attorney’s “mental impressions, theories, notes, strategies, and research” and provides “a privileged area within which he can analyze and prepare his client’s case.”
The court determined that the invoices’ general descriptions of legal work – such as “drafting a memo, making a telephone call, and performing research” – do not reveal an attorney’s mental impressions as is required for the privilege to apply.
In addition, the court noted that, “where, as here, the taxpayers are footing the bill for the legal services, they are entitled to know the general nature of the services provided for the fees charged.”
The court next considered whether grand jury secrecy rules barred the public from seeing the invoices. The court said that nothing in the documents connects the clients’ identities to secret grand jury material and that nothing in the invoices were created to provide information relating to a legal bill, not for any matter relating to a grand jury proceeding. Moreover, witnesses are not subject to grand jury secrecy rules, and the disclosure of invoices could not be considered unauthorized disclosures of “matters occurring before the grand jury.”
Finally, the Court rejected the Senate’s contention that the invoices are covered by the RTKL’s criminal investigation exception. As the court explained, the invoices “do not relate to any ‘law enforcement functions’ of the Senate” and “do not contain any investigatory material.” Accordingly, the criminal investigation exception does not apply to them.
In light of theses rulings, the court ordered the Senate to produce the invoices without redactions.