RTKL; Disclosure of Financial Records
City of Harrisburg v. Prince, 186 A.3d 544 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2018), allocatur granted Nov. 20, 2018, appeal docket 62 MAP 2018
This case arises from a Right to Know law request by attorney Joshua Prince to the City of Harrisburg, requesting disclosure of names and addresses of donors to the “Protect Harrisburg Legal Defense Fund” (Fund) contained in a spreadsheet maintained by the City of Harrisburg, which also included check dates, check numbers, names,addresses, phone numbers, and amounts of monetary contributions of donors. The City denied Prince’s request, claiming the information contained on the spreadsheet was exempt pursuant to RTKL Section 708(b)(13), which protects donor records from disclosure. Prince appealed to the Office of Open Records(OOR), which determined that the names and addresses of the private donors to the Fund contained in the Spreadsheet must be disclosed because it is a “financial record” as defined in RTKL Section 102. The City appealed to the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas which affirmed that portion of OOR’s Final Determination finding that no other responsive records exist in the City’s custody or control and reversed OOR’s order directing disclosure of the names and addresses contained on the Spreadsheet.
Prince appealed to Commonwealth Court and argued that the names and addresses of the private donors to the Fund contained in the Spreadsheet must be disclosed because it is a “financial record” as defined in Section 102. Specifically, Prince asserted that the Spreadsheet containing the donor information provided in relation to his request was clearly an “account”or “voucher” that deals with the “receipt … of funds by an agency” and,therefore, falls within the definition of “financial record”. The City countered that the trial court correctly found the donor information was protected under Section 708(b)(13). The City further argued that RTKL Section 706 permits the redaction of financial records, and the broad interpretation of“financial record” advanced by Prince would render the Section 708(b)(13) donor exemption a nullity.
Applying the rules of statutory construction to Sections 102 and 708(b)(13), Commonwealth Court determined that the names and addresses in the Spreadsheet are not “sufficiently connected to any City account, voucher,or contract to constitute a financial record subject to disclosure under the RTKL; rather the information in the Spreadsheet is merely a collation of data with respect to the donors of private funds that is subject to exemption.” SlipOp. at 14. The court reasoned that because the private funds voluntarily donated to the City by check were not “received” by the City, they did not become agency funds for RTKL purposes until they were deposited into a City account; therefore, the City’s internal compilation of private donor information does not have a sufficiently close connection to such account to be considered a financial record under the RTKL. In summary, the court explained:
… records relating to the actual receipt and disbursement of the privately donated nongovernmental funds by the City into and from a City account are “financial records” for purposes of the RTKL; documents unrelated to the foregoing financial transactions are not“financial records” and are subject to exemption. See, e.g., Tribune–Review Publishing Company v. Department of Community and Economic Development, 580 Pa. 80, 859 A.2d 1261, 1268 (2004) (“Neither ‘the log’ nor the information it contains could be characterized fairly as an account, contract, or voucher to accompany or memorialize funding. … While the database does indicate whether certain applications have been awarded Program funding, it is simply an electronic storage facility, and not a decisional document.”).
Slip Op. at 14. Accordingly, the court found the trial court did not err in determining that the requested donor Spreadsheet information is exempt from disclosure under RTKL Section 708(b)(13).
The majority further noted that if the Spreadsheet was deemed to be a “financial record” for purposes of Section 708(c) as Prince argued, the donors’ names and addresses would nonetheless be subject to redaction as Section 708(c) which permits redaction of personal financial information exempted by Section 708(b)(6)(i)(A), including donors’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers. “In sum,” the court held, “the trial court did not err in reversing that portion of OOR’s Final Determination finding that the donors’ names and addresses in the Spreadsheet are not subject to exemption under the relevant provisions of the RTKL, and Requester’s claims to the contrary are without merit.” Slip Op. at 18-19.
Judge Cohn Jubelirer, joined by Judge McCullough, dissented from the majority’s conclusion that the Spreadsheet was not a ‘financial record’ of the City under the RTKL, explaining:
In my opinion, there is no doubt that the funds here are received by the City. The Donor Spreadsheet clearly evidences the receipt of funds by the City from donors, which, in turn, are deposited by the City Treasury into a City bank account. The funds are accounted for in the City’s General Ledger/accounting system and appropriated by City Council towards legal fees. (See City Response to Office of Open Records (OOR), Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 72a.) In short, the Donor Spreadsheet pertains to, and is an accounting of, the funds that were actually received by the City. As a result, I would conclude that the donor information contained within the Donor Spreadsheet is a “financial record” as defined in Section 102 of the RTKL.Slip. Op. at RCJ-3.
Furthermore, the dissent disagreed that the information would nonetheless be subject to redaction pursuant to Section 708(c) as Section 708(c) specifically provides for redaction of information under Sections 708(b)(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (16) or (17). “Of importance,” Judge Cohn Jubelirer wrote, “the donor exception found in subsection (b)(13) is not included.” Slip Op. at RCJ-4.
The dissent acknowledged that the personal information exemption may apply, because the Donor Spreadsheet contains check dates, check numbers, and amounts, which are “more innocuous” than names and addresses and“does not disclose anything about an individual’s personal finances, like someone’s hourly rate, deduction, or net pay.” Slip Op. at RCJ-6. However,because names and addresses of donors are requested, the dissent reasoned that“an additional analysis under Pennsylvania State Education Association ex rel. Wilson v. Department of Community and Economic Development, 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016) (PSEA III), is required to balance the individual donors’ right of privacy against the public’s interest in disclosure.” Slip Op. at RCJ-6. Therefore, Judge Cohn Jubelirer suggested, the majority should have remanded to the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County to develop the record to “allow for the donors’ right to privacy to be balanced against the public’s right to know.” Id.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur on the following issue:
Does the City of Harrisburg’s creation of a spreadsheet to show the receipt of funds from donors to the “Protect Harrisburg Legal Defense Fund” constitute a “financial record” as defined in 65 P.S. § 67.102?
Allocatur grants present an excellent opportunity for your group or association to advance your legal and policy goals by filing an amicus brief. Participating as an amicus has proven to be an effective method of advising and influencing courts and often can involve far fewer resources than traditional lobbying.
If you are interested or would like more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.