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Hearst Television, Inc. v. Norris

November 16, 2010

HEARST TELEVISION, INC., D/B/A WGAL-TV AND DANIEL O'DONNELL, APPELLANTS
v.
MICHAEL L. NORRIS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS CORONER OF CUMBERLAND COUNTY AND THE PENNSYLVANIA OFFICE OF OPEN RECORDS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Cohn Jubelirer

Argued: September 14, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. RIEDMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Hearst Television, Inc., d/b/a WGAL-TV and Daniel O'Donnell (together, Requesters) appeal the December 23, 2009, Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County (trial court) that upheld the decision of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR), which denied Requesters' appeal from the denial of their Right-to-Know Request (Request) by Michael Norris, then Coroner of Cumberland County (the Coroner).*fn1 Through the Request, Requesters sought to obtain records from the Coroner setting forth the manner of death of a student at Shippensburg University. In this case, the parties agree that "manner of death" records are public records and must ultimately be disclosed to the public as a matter of law. However, the parties disagree as to when the Coroner must disclose these public records, and this is the issue presently before our Court.

I. Facts and Procedural Posture

The facts, as found by the trial court, are as follows. On April 16, 2009, a 19-year-old college student was found dead in his Shippensburg apartment and, subsequently, the Coroner investigated the death. Requesters sought the manner of death records of the student from the Coroner who, acting as the Agency Open Records Officer, denied the request. Relying on Section 1251 of the Act, commonly known as the "Coroner's Act,"*fn2 the Coroner stated that "[a]ny information this office may have regarding the manner of death for any person who died in 2009 is not public record and would not become public under current law until 30 days after the end of the year. [16 P.S. §] 1251." (Letter from the Coroner to Requesters (April 23, 2009), R.R. at 4a.) Pursuant to the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL),*fn3 Requesters appealed to the OOR. On May 27, 2009, the OOR issued a Final Determination denying the appeal, concluding that "the requested record is a public record under the RTKL when it is deposited with the prothonotary's office as required by [Section 1251 of] the Coroner's Act.... As such, the autopsy report will be available 30 days after the end of 2009." (OOR Final Determination at 4, May 27, 2009, R.R. at 10a.) Requesters filed a motion for reconsideration to the OOR, which was granted. On July 24, 2009, the OOR issued a Determination Upon Petition for Reconsideration (Reconsideration Determination) affirming its Final Determination and concluding that immediate access to official records of the Coroner is not required under Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL, 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(20), which provides as follows:

(b) Exceptions.--Except as provided in subsections (c) and (d), the following are exempt from access by a requester under this act:

....

(20) An autopsy record of a coroner or medical examiner and any audiotape of a post-mortem examination or autopsy, or a copy, reproduction or facsimile of an autopsy report, a photograph, negative or print, including a photograph or videotape of the body or any portion of the body of a deceased person at the scene of death or in the course of a post-mortem examination or autopsy taken or made by or caused to be taken or made by the coroner or medical examiner. This exception shall not limit the reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death.

Id. (emphasis added). Relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Penn Jersey Advance, Inc. v. Grim, 599 Pa. 534, 962 A.2d 632 (2009), the OOR determined that Section 708(b)(20) does not require immediate access to manner of death records because requiring immediate disclosure of such records would conflict with the Coroner's Act and, thus, violate Section 3101.1 of the RTKL, 65 P.S. § 67.3101.1 (stating that the RTKL does not apply when it is in conflict with another state statute). (Reconsideration Determination at 7-8, R.R. at 37a-38a.) Requesters appealed to the trial court.

On December 23, 2009, the trial court issued the Order upholding the OOR's Final Determination that the manner of death records need not be immediately disclosed by the Coroner pursuant to Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL. The trial court rejected Requesters' argument that the proviso in Section 708(b)(20), which states "[t]his exception shall not limit the reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death," 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(20), (the Proviso), is an exception to the autopsy records exemption that makes manner of death records immediately disclosable under the RTKL. The trial court held that because the General Assembly failed to adopt language that could have more clearly expressed a desire to make such records subject to immediate disclosure under the RTKL, the trial court was permitted to resort to statutory interpretation or look to the legislative history of the provision. The trial court examined the original bill of Section 708(b)(20) and the first amendment passed in the House of Representatives and noted that, initially, the Proviso specifically referenced the Coroner's Act.*fn4 (Trial Ct. Op. at 7.) Therefore, the trial court held that notwithstanding the fact that the final amendment in the Senate, which became law, "changed the last sentence slightly [by taking] out the specific reference to [the Coroner's Act]," the Proviso does not "mandate access by a requester to the reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death; rather," the Proviso only "makes sense if it is a reference to not limiting information that a coroner may release under the Coroner's Act." (Trial Ct. Op. at 7-8.) Requesters now appeal to this Court.*fn5

II. Discussion

On appeal,*fn6 Requesters contend that the manner of death records must be disclosed immediately, pursuant to the RTKL. The Coroner argues that these records are exempt from the RTKL's disclosure provisions under the autopsy records exemption found in Section 708(b)(20) of the RTKL and do not have to be disclosed until those records are required to be filed with the prothonotary, thirty days after the end of the calendar year, pursuant to Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act.*fn7 ...


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