This guide is for journalists seeking to compel a state agency to turn over records requested under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. The state of Pennsylvania maintains an Office of Open Records which implements and enforces the Right-to-Know Law, and provides standard forms and procedures to follow when requesting information from a state agency.
Each Pennsylvania agency is required to employ an Open Records Officer (also called a “Right-to-Know Officer”). Determine the name and address of the Open Records Officer for the agency from which you are requesting records. You can find the Open Records Officer here.
When contacting Open Records Officers, you may have success with verbal requests. However, if you wish to pursue the relief and remedies provided in the Right-to-Know Law, you must make a written request using the following forms and procedures.
Make the written request using the Standard Right-To-Know Request Form in Exhibit A. You can file the request via fax, e-mail, U.S. Mail, or in person. A written request should identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested. Keep a dated copy of your request for your records. You will need to include this copy when you file your complaint.
An agency has 5 business days to respond in writing. The response will either 1) grant the request, 2) deny or partially deny the request (citing the legal basis for denial), or 3) invoke a thirty day extension (for various reasons such as off-site storage of records, need for legal review for redaction, etc.) If the agency does not respond within 5 business days, the request is deemed denied. The 5 day response period begins the day after the request is received during business hours.
If an agency denies a record or portion of a record, you can file an appeal with the Office of Open Records using the appeal form in Exhibit B. If an agency denies the request by a deemed denial, file an appeal with the Office of Open Records using the appeal form in Exhibit C.
An appeal must be submitted to the Office of Open Records within 15 days of the mailing date of the agency’s response or deemed denial. All appeals must be in writing and include the following information:
- Copy of the Right-to-Know request.
- Copy of the denial letter submitted by the agency.
- State why you believe the record is a public record.
- Address all grounds that the agency raised in its denial, stating why each ground is incorrect.
When the Office of Open Records receives the appeal, it has 30 days from the date of receipt to issue a Final Determination. If a Final Determination is not issued within 30 days, the appeal is deemed denied.
If the Final Determination denies the request, or if the request is deemed denied, the requestor may appeal to either the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court or the Court of Common Pleas for the county where the local agency is located. The appeal must be made within 30 days of the mailing date of the Final Determination, or within 30 days from the date the request is deemed denied.
If you are appealing a Final Determination or a deemed denial from a local agency (defined as any political subdivision, intermediate unit, charter school, cyber charter school or public trade or vocational school), file your petition for review with the Court of Common Pleas.
For an appeal from any other agency, including legislative agencies (see Exhibit D for complete list), Commonwealth Agencies (see Exhibit E for complete list), and state judicial agencies (a court or any other entity or office of the unified judicial system), file your petition for review with the Commonwealth Court.
If the court reverses a Final Determination or grants access to a document previously denied, the requestor may receive reasonable costs and attorney fees, if either 1) the agency acted willfully or with wanton disregard when it deprived the requestor of access to the public records, or the agency otherwise acted in bad faith, or 2) the exemptions, exclusions, or defenses asserted by the agency in its final determination were based on an unreasonable interpretation of law (see 65 P.S. §67.1304).