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McElfresh v. Dep't of Transportation

October 23, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James R. Kelley, Senior Judge


AND NOW, this 13th day of January, 2009, it is ordered that the Opinion filed on October 23, 2008, shall be designated OPINION rather than MEMORANDUM OPINION, and that it shall be reported.

Argued: May 6, 2008



Edna McElfresh petitions for review of an order of a Department of Transportation (DOT) Hearing Officer.*fn1 The Hearing Officer denied a request for documents sought pursuant to what is commonly referred to as the Right to Know Law.*fn2 The Hearing Officer concluded that McElfresh's request seeking various DOT records, including a Vehicle Sales and Use Tax/Application for Registration (Form MV-4ST), sought information protected from disclosure under the Commonwealth's tax statutes. We affirm.

McElfresh is the plaintiff in a civil suit against the Toyota of Greensburg automotive dealership (the Dealership). In that suit, McElfresh alleges that she left her car with the Dealership and took one of its cars, which she intended to purchase upon approval. The following day, McElfresh alleges, she decided not to buy the car, and requested the return of her car, which the Dealership informed her had already been sold. McElfresh thereafter brought a civil suit, and in seeking information regarding the sales price of her car, was told by the Dealership that it had lost the records thereon. McElfresh subsequently filed with DOT an RTKL request,*fn3 and DOT provided her with the requested records, including Form MV-4ST. However, DOT redacted from Form MV-4ST the car purchase price and sales tax figures. McElfresh timely objected to that redaction, and a hearing before the Hearing Officer ensued.

The Hearing Officer addressed, in part most relevant, Commonwealth statutes prohibiting the disclosure by Commonwealth agencies of certain tax collection information gained under Commonwealth tax collection statutes,*fn4 noting that said prohibition removed the redacted information sought herein from the RKTL definition of disclosable public records.*fn5 McElfresh argued that her suit constituted an "official purpose" under Section 731 of the Fiscal Code, and/or that the RTKL itself qualified as a request "otherwise provided by law" under Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code of 1971, and that either of those provisions would serve to override the non-disclosure provisions. The Hearing Officer concluded that the circular logic of the conflict between the RTKL and the tax statutes' provisions necessitated, for purposes of avoiding an absurd result in the statutory construction of the statutes at issue, the protection of the redacted information from disclosure. As such, by order dated November 14, 2007, the Hearing Officer denied McElfresh's request. McElfresh now petitions this Court for review of the Hearing Officer's order. Commonwealth Court's scope of review of an agency decision under the RTKL is limited to whether constitutional rights have been violated, whether an error of law has been committed, and whether necessary findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Digital-Ink, Inc. v. Department of General Services, 923 A.2d 1262 (Pa. Cmwlth.), petition for allowance of appeal denied, 594 Pa. 706, 936 A.2d 41 (2007).

McElfresh presents one issue for review: whether the Hearing Officer erred in concluding that Section 731 of the Fiscal Code, and/or Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code, applied to the RTKL request, thereby authorizing DOT to deny the request for sales tax information related to the sale of the vehicle at issue.

We initially note that DOT concedes that the information sought from Form MV-4ST meets the RTKL threshold definition of a public record. However, DOT contends that Section 1 of the RTKL nevertheless exempts the information from disclosure because that disclosure is prohibited by Section 731 and/or Section 274 as information gained by DOT as authorized by the tax collection provisions of the Vehicle Code.*fn6 DOT further considers itself subject to prosecution for disclosure of the sought information pursuant to the penalty provision of Section 731.

McElfresh argues that Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code controls herein, and mandates disclosure of the information as an exception under Section 274 "as otherwise provided by law," citing to the RTKL as the law providing for disclosure of public records such as the one at issue. McElfresh argues that the interrelationship of these two statutory provisions -- Section 731, and Section 274 -- can be defined by an application of Sections 1933*fn7 and 1936*fn8 of the Statutory Construction Act of 1972. Section 731 was added to the Fiscal Code in 1939, and amended in 1956. Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code was enacted in 1971. As such, McElfresh asserts, the specific nature of Section 274, due to its later date of final enactment, controls over the general disclosure provision of the earlier-enacted Section 731. McElfresh concludes that therefore, the information is subject to disclosure "as provided by law" -- namely, the RTKL - under the specific terms of Section 274. While we agree with Section 274's specific control over the general language of Section 731, we cannot agree with McElfresh's preferred interpretation as applied to the RTKL.

Reading Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code as providing for disclosure, under the RTKL, of otherwise statutorily protected tax information would result in a complete evisceration of the confidentiality provisions of both Sections 274 and 731, in that no effect could be given to those provisions in the face of any RTKL request, and they would thusly be rendered mere surplusage. It is axiomatic that statutes shall be construed to give effect to all of their provisions in such a way that no provision becomes mere surplusage. Section 1921(a) of the Statutory Construction Act, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a); UMCO Energy, Inc. v. Department of Environmental Protection, 938 A.2d 530 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007), petition for allowance of appeal denied, ___Pa.___, 951 A.2d 1168 (2008). As such, McElfresh's statutory construction arguments actually contradict our well-established application of the principles of the Statutory Construction Act, and are without merit in relation to her assertion that an RTKL request is an exception "as provided by law" under the language of Section 274.*fn9 *fn10

McElfresh also argues that if Section 731 of the Fiscal Code is found to control the instant matter, the Hearing Officer had a duty to review the matter and determine whether the information could be released in the interests of justice. McElfresh asserts, correctly, that the RTKL favors transparency and public access regarding any expenditure or receipt of public funds. Pennsylvania State University v. State Employees' Retirement Board, 594 Pa. 244, 935 A.2d 530 (2007). Our Supreme Court has held, as McElfresh emphasizes, that the RTKL only prohibits the release of information when the records sought potentially impair the reputation or personal security of another, and only when the potential impairment outweighs the public interest in the dissemination of the records at issue. Id. Employing this standard, McElfresh argues that DOT's rationale for redacting the information at issue is meritless on its face, as no harm to the purchaser's reputation or privacy in disclosing the purchase price will occur in this matter. It is undisputed in this matter that the purchaser of McElfresh's vehicle has since sold the vehicle, and that his whereabouts are unknown. As such, McElfresh asserts that no privacy interests, or potential personal impairment, are implicated by her request, and further emphasizes that the sought information would be subject to disclosure if the sale were one of any other type of motorized vehicle that did not require registration with DOT.

We agree, most generally stated, that the privacy interest in this matter may be outweighed by the public interest in the justice sought in McElfresh's underlying civil suit. Said civil suit should undeniably be granted the benefit of a full airing of all dispositive facts if at all possible under our Commonwealth's statutes. We disagree, however, that McElfresh's RTKL request was the proper avenue through which to gain the information sought herein. As noted above, no reading of the confidentiality provisions at stake can be interpreted to subject the sought information to a RTKL request under the facts sub judice. However, the clear and unambiguous language of Section 274 of the Tax Reform Code does expressly provide a mechanism through which ...

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