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Penn Jersey Advance, Inc. v. Grim

January 22, 2009

PENN JERSEY ADVANCE, INC. D/B/A EASTON PUBLISHING COMPANY, APPELLANT
v.
SCOTT GRIM, LEHIGH COUNTY CORONER, APPELLEE
THE MORNING CALL, INC. AND JOSEPH MCDONALD, APPELLANTS
v.
SCOTT GRIM, IN HIS CAPACITY AS LEHIGH COUNTY CORONER, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Opinion and Order of the Commonwealth Court, dated November 3, 2006, at No. 658 C.D. 2006, 910 A.2d 120 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2006), reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, dated March 24, 2006 at No. 2006-C-378.
Appeal from the Opinion and Order of the Commonwealth Court, dated November 3, 2006, at No. 891 C.D. 2006, 910 A.2d 120 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2006), reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, dated April 21, 2006 at No. 2006-C-750.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice McCAFFERY

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, JJ.

ARGUED: April 16, 2008

OPINION

The issue presented by this appeal is whether a coroner's autopsy report is an "official" record or paper within the meaning of Section 1251 of the act commonly referred to as the "Coroner's Act."*fn1 The Commonwealth Court held that it is not. We granted allowance of appeal in order to clarify the matter in light of apparent inconsistencies among this Court, the Commonwealth Court, and the Superior Court in the application of Section 1251. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse. *fn2

The facts are as follows. Police Officer Jesse Sollman was shot inside the Easton, Northampton County police headquarters on March 25, 2005, and was pronounced dead at St. Luke's Hospital in Lehigh County. Scott Grim, the Coroner of Lehigh County and Appellee herein, conducted an autopsy and prepared an autopsy report reflecting his determination that Officer Sollman's death was a homicide. On February 6, 2006, Jim Deegan, the managing editor of the Express-Times newspaper, and Joseph McDonald, a reporter for The Morning Call newspaper, each independently asked Grim to provide the autopsy report for their review. Grim declined on the ground that it was not one of the "official records and papers" that Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act requires every coroner to deposit with the office of the prothonotary.

Representatives of the two newspapers filed respective mandamus actions and motions for peremptory judgment in which they sought to compel Grim, pursuant to Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act, to deposit all of his official records and papers for 2005, including his autopsy report on Officer Sollman, with the Clerk of Courts of Lehigh County.*fn3

Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act provides:

Every coroner, within thirty (30) days after the end of each year, shall deposit all of his official records and papers for the preceding year in the office of the prothonotary for the inspection of all persons interested therein.

16 P.S. § 1251 (emphasis added). The trial court, in two separate orders, (1) granted the respective motions for peremptory judgment; (2) directed that a judgment of mandamus be entered in each case; and (3) ordered Grim to deposit the records in question with the clerk of courts. Grim appealed both orders.

On appeal from both orders, the Commonwealth Court reversed, holding that autopsy reports are not "official records and papers" of a coroner under Section 1251. Penn Jersey Advance, Inc. v. Grim, 910 A.2d 120, 124-25 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2006).*fn4 In doing so, the court relied exclusively on its decision in Johnstown Tribune Publishing Company v. Ross, 871 A.2d 324 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2005), which the court determined to be "directly on point" as it dealt with a similar factual scenario involving a newspaper publisher who had filed a complaint in mandamus seeking to compel a coroner to disclose the autopsy report of a homicide victim. Penn Jersey Advance, 910 A.2d at 122. The court summarized the relevant legal conclusions of Johnstown Tribune as follows:

Our holding in Johnstown Tribune was premised upon basic principles of statutory construction as well as privacy concerns. A coroner's statutory duty under the Coroner's Act is to ascertain the cause and manner of suspicious deaths. Johnstown Tribune, 871 A.2d at 328. See also Section 1237 of the Coroner's Act, 16 P.S. § 1237 (describing a coroner's duties and the narrow purpose of a coroner's investigation); Section 1238 of the Coroner's Act, 16 P.S. § 1238 (requiring an autopsy only when the coroner's investigation is inconclusive as to cause and manner of death). Thus, the legislature's use of the word "official" in the phrase "official records and papers" is significant. It implies that there are "unofficial" records within the coroner's custody that are not subject to disclosure. It follows that the "official" records that a coroner must deposit with the prothonotary are those that state the cause of death and whether it was the result of criminal conduct. Johnstown Tribune, 871 A.2d at 328. We also determined in Johnstown Tribune that if autopsy reports were included as part of the "official" records, an irreconcilable conflict would arise between Section 1251 and Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner's Act, which allows for the coroner to charge and collect a fee of up to one hundred dollars ($100) for an autopsy report. Finally, this Court noted that if autopsy reports were to become part of the official record, much more than the cause and manner of death could be revealed to the public, such as potentially privileged information related to the decedent's medical history and graphic photographs taken during the autopsy. Id. at 329.

Penn Jersey Advance, 910 A.2d at 122-123 (footnote omitted).

In adopting the analysis used in Johnstown Tribune, the Commonwealth Court explicitly rejected the trial court's determination that the instant cases were controlled by our decision in Com. ex rel. District Attorney of Blair County, In re Buchanan, 583 Pa. 620, 880 A.2d 568 (2005). In Buchanan, we approved of the Superior Court's reasoning in In re Dillon, 674 A.2d 735 (Pa.Super. 1996), which had interpreted the reference in Section 1251 to "official records and papers" as including autopsy reports. We determined that the Superior Court's interpretation was "certainly reasonable," as the phrase "official records and papers" was "broadly stated . and the parties do not dispute that autopsy reports are covered material." Buchanan, supra at 624, 880 A.2d at 571. The Commonwealth Court concluded that Buchanan was not controlling because (1) the decision only characterized Dillon's interpretation as "certainly reasonable" but did not expressly adopt it; and (2) the Buchanan Court was not required to resolve the issue because the parties agreed that autopsy reports were material encompassed by Section 1251.*fn5 The Commonwealth Court further noted that, unlike Johnstown Tribune, Dillon was not premised upon any statutory analysis of the Coroner's Act but merely assumed that autopsy reports were covered under Section 1251. In addition, the Commonwealth Court stated that Buchanan and Dillon are distinguishable, because, unlike the instant case, those cases "addressed the balance between the public's interest in ...


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