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Hearst Television Inc., D/B/A Wgal-Tv and Daniel O'donnell v. Michael L. Norris

October 17, 2012

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, APPELLEES



Appeal from the Commonwealth Court order of November 16, 2010, at 95 CD 2010, affirming the order of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas of December 23, 2009, at 09-5832 Civil Term 8 A.3d 420

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

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

ARGUED: May 9, 2012

OPINION

Following the death of a college student in Shippensburg, Hearst Television, Inc., d/b/a WGAL-TV and its reporter, Daniel O'Donnell (Requester), filed a Right to Know Law (RTKL) request with Michael Norris, the Coroner of Cumberland County (Coroner), seeking the student's manner of death. The Coroner rejected the request, and the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) upheld the Coroner's decision. On appeal, the trial court and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. We reverse, holding that under Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner's Act, 16 P.S. § 1236.1(c), and the RTKL, 65 P.S. §§ 67.101-67.3104, the Coroner's record indicating the manner of death was immediately available to Requester.

Because this case involves the interpretation and interplay of two statutes, a brief review of the relevant provisions is helpful before we turn to the facts of the case. First, the Coroner's Act*fn1 authorizes the county coroner to investigate certain deaths to determine their cause and manner. See 16 P.S. § 1237(a) & (b) (authorizing the coroner to investigate the facts and circumstances of certain deaths for the purpose of determining "the cause of any such death"); id. at § 1238 (authorizing the coroner to perform an autopsy or conduct an inquest when the coroner cannot otherwise determine the cause and manner of death); id. at § 1239 (authorizing the coroner to investigate a sudden death to determine its cause and manner); Commonwealth v. Boczkowski, 846 A.2d 75, 88 (Pa. 2004) (recognizing that "[a]lthough death itself occurs in innumerable ways, there are but a limited number of manners of death: suicide, natural causes, accident, homicide or, in rare instances, indeterminable."). The Coroner's Act further imposes an obligation to deposit all of a coroner's official records and papers for public inspection, free of charge, as follows:

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. It is not disputed that the "official records and papers" that must be deposited annually include cause and manner of death records. C.F. Penn Jersey Advance, Inc. v. Grim, 962 A.2d 632, 636 (Pa. 2009). Additionally, Section 1236.1(a) & (b) of the Coroner's Act gives coroners discretion to accommodate "requests for examination or other professional services by other counties or persons" subject to guidelines established by the county commissioners and for established fees.*fn2

Section 1236.1(c) allows the coroner to charge a limited fee for autopsy reports, toxicology reports, inquisition or coroner's reports, and "other reports and documents requested by non-governmental agencies." 16 Pa.C.S. §1236.1(c). The parties agree that the manner of death record requested in this case is included in Section 1236.1(c) as an "other report or document."*fn3 Accordingly, although the coroner is obligated to deposit its official records and papers, including cause and manner of death records, for public inspection with the prothonotary by January 30 of the following year, see id. § 1251, Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner's Act also provides a rapid means of procuring coroners' records for a fee if an entity or individual does not want to wait until thirty days after the end of the year. See Penn Jersey, 962 A.2d at 637 (reconciling an asserted conflict between the year-end reporting requirement of Section 1251 and the fee provision of Section 1236.1(c) by explaining that "Section 1236.1[(c)] merely provides a rapid means of procuring an autopsy report for those who do not wish to wait until after the end of the year, and who are also willing to pay the charges associated with procuring it.").

The other statute involved in this case is the RTKL, 65 P.S. §§ 67.101-67.3104. The RTKL presumes that all records in possession a local agency are public, see 65 P.S. § 67.305, and are therefore accessible for inspection and duplication, see 65 P.S. § 67.701. A public record is defined as "[a] record, including a financial record, of a Commonwealth or local agency that: (1) is not exempt under section 708; (2) is not exempt from being disclosed under any other Federal or State law or regulation or judicial order or decree; or (3) is not protected by a privilege." 65 P.S. § 67.102. The exemption implicated here is Section 708(b)(20), which exempts, inter alia, a coroner's autopsy records. Importantly, however, Section 708(b)(20) also contains a proviso that "[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).*fn4 The RTKL also contains a conflict provision: "[i]f the provisions of this act regarding access to records conflict with any other Federal or State law, the provisions of this act shall not apply." 65 P.S. § 67.3101.1.

With this statutory background in mind, we turn to the facts of this case. On April 16, 2009, a nineteen-year old college student was found dead in his Shippensburg apartment, and, subsequently, the Coroner investigated his death. In due course, the Coroner determined the student's cause and manner of death. Requester filed a Right-to-Know request (Request) with the Coroner pursuant to the RTKL, seeking solely the "[m]anner of death." The Coroner, acting in accord with the RTKL as an Agency Open Records Officer, see 65 P.S. § 67.502,*fn5 denied the request. The Coroner indicated that cause and manner of death records would only become available to the public thirty days after the end of the year in accord with Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act, 16 P.S. § 1251. The Coroner viewed the RTKL as providing no greater right of access than that already provided in Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act.

Pursuant to the RTKL, Requester appealed the Coroner's determination to the OOR. See 65 P.S. § 67.1101. On May 27, 2009, the OOR issued a determination denying the appeal and affirming the Coroner's determination, concluding that the cause and manner of death record only becomes a public record subject to disclosure under the RTKL when it has already been made public pursuant to Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act. Thus, Requester would have to wait to view the manner of death record until the Coroner deposited his official records and papers with the prothonotary by January 30, 2010.

Requester filed a motion for reconsideration, which the OOR granted before issuing a final determination affirming the Coroner's rejection of the Request and concluding that the RTKL did not require immediate access to the manner of death. The OOR further took the opportunity to address a specific legal challenge advanced by Requester to its initial ruling. Specifically, Requester argued that under Section 305 of the RTKL all records in possession of a local agency are presumed to be public unless exempted by, inter alia, Section 708(b)(20). According to Requestor, although this section exempts a coroner's autopsy records, it also contains an exception to the exemption for "the reporting of the name of the deceased individual and the cause and manner of death." 65 P.S. § 67.708(b)(20). Based on this proviso, Requester argued that the report of the cause and manner of death is a public record subject to immediate disclosure under the RTKL.

Rejecting Requester's argument premised on Section 708(b)(20), the OOR found that immediate disclosure of cause and manner of death records under the RTKL would conflict with the year-end disclosure requirement in Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act. The OOR found a further conflict between immediate disclosure under the RTKL and Section 1236.1 of the Coroner's Act. Although the OOR recognized that Section 1236.1(c) provided an avenue to access the coroner's records at any time, it interpreted Section 1236.1(a) (authorizing the coroner to comply with "requests for examinations or other professional services" at the coroner's discretion) as also vesting discretion in the coroner as to whether to comply with requests for the early release of records, for a fee, under Section 1236.1(c). Because it viewed Section 1236.1(c) as providing the coroner with discretion, it found that it was in conflict with the mandatory, immediate release authorized under the RTKL.

To resolve this perceived conflict, the OOR examined the conflict provision in Section 3101.1 of the RTKL. 65 P.S. § 67.3101.1 (directing that where there is a conflict between the RTKL and another law, the other law shall prevail). It held that Sections 1251 and 1236.1 of the Coroner's Act govern, and the RTKL merely provides a "vehicle" to obtain the Coroner's official records and papers after the Coroner has already deposited them with the prothonotary for public inspection in accord with Section 1251.

Requester appealed to the court of common pleas. After a hearing, the trial court affirmed the OOR. The court focused on the language of Section 708(b)(20) and held that the intent of this section was to exempt from the definition of public records all autopsy records except to the extent the coroner is already obligated under Section 1251 of the Coroner's Act to make its records available following the end of the year. The trial court read Section 708(b)(20) as specifically accounting for the ...


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