Commonwealth Court issues positive RTKL decision

  • Sep 20, 2012

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

The Commonwealth Court has held that providing access to information stored in databases is not “creating a record” for purposes of section 705 of the RTKL and also ordered the production of addresses. 

The requester sought access to information submitted as part of an on-line solar energy rebate program administered by the Department of Environmental Protection.  The requester sought access to a number of data fields, including applicant names, installation addresses, and application approval dates. DEP denied access on the basis that the record did not exist in the requested format, and the department was not required to create a record or organize its files in response to a request citing section 705 of the RTKL. The Office of Open Records disagreed and ordered DEP to provide access.

In affirming the Office of Open Records, the Commonwealth Court held that drawing information from a database is not “creating” a record for purposes of the Right to Know Law. In overruling DEP’s argument, the court noted that suggesting a format in a RTKL request is not an improper request to create a record. The court also succinctly held that “to the extent requested information exists in a database, it must be provided; an agency cannot claim otherwise under Section 705 of the Right-to-Know Law.”  The Court also noted that agencies are not required to compile spreadsheets – although they can voluntarily do so. At a minimum, agencies must make database information available in the same format available to agency personnel.

The court also ordered DEP to provide address information, despite DEP’s assertion of a constitutional right to privacy and its reliance on the RTKL’s safety and security exemptions. In ordering production of addresses, the court noted that DEP itself explained in the rebate application that information submitted would be considered public. The court further noted that DEP provided no evidence that any party had requested that address information be withheld for security reasons; nor did the DEP support its constitutional argument on appeal.

You can read DEP v. Cole here:

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