Legal Hotline: RTKL and Specificity

Legal Hotline: RTKL and Specificity

PNA Legal Hotline

Q:  My RTKL request was denied for lack of specificity. What are the general rules I should be following to avoid that issue in the future?

A:  The Right-to-Know Law requires requests to “identify or describe the records sought with sufficient specificity to enable the agency to ascertain which records are being requested” and the courts have created a three-part test to assist agencies, the OOR and courts to apply that general rule.

Although the three-part test is not mandatory, agencies routinely deny requests that do not comply, thus when drafting a request, it is a good practice to consider whether it contains all three elements of the specificity test, and if not, to reconsider the language prior to submission. Being denied for lack of specificity can cause significant delays as you will be required to re-submit the request with different language or file an administrative appeal to address the issue.

The basic elements of the specificity test are:

  • The subject matter of the request must identify the ‘transaction or activity’ of the agency for which the record is sought;

Note: Keywords alone are not generally sufficient and don’t necessarily identify a “transaction or activity” of an agency, but they can be helpful, especially when requesting electronic records like email.

  • The scope of the request must identify a discrete group of documents e.g., type or recipient;

Note: If you know public employee names, job titles, etc. include that information. If you know an agency uses a specific term, use it. If not, describe information in the records and/or how it is used.

  • The timeframe of the request should identify a finite period of time for which records are sought, e.g., a date range.

Note: date range is the most flexible of the three prongs and the lack of a time or a lengthy time frame does not necessarily result in a lack of specificity.

In addition to the general rules above, requests should also avoid including terms like “any and all” and “including but not limited to” as those terms have been found to lack specificity under the law.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your newspaper’s attorney or the Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions or to have your draft RTKL request reviewed prior to submission.