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Butler Area School District v. Pennsylvanians For Union Reform

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

November 2, 2017

Butler Area School District
v.
Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, Appellant Pennsylvanians for Union Reform, Appellant
v.
Butler Area School District

          Argued: September 11, 2017

          BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge

          OPINION

          ROBERT SIMPSON, JUDGE.

         In these consolidated appeals under the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL), [1]we are asked whether addresses contained in property tax assessment records, that are public under statute[2] and case law, are protected by the right to privacy in Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as construed by our Supreme Court in Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) v. Department of Community & Economic Development, 148 A.3d 142 (Pa. 2016) (PSEA III).

         Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (Requester) appeals from two orders issued by the Butler County Court of Common Pleas (trial court) that denied access to addresses it requested under the RTKL. Specifically, Requester sought the property tax assessment list (Property List) from the Butler Area School District (School District), as well as its Superintendent's home address. The Office of Open Records (OOR) upheld the School District's denial of addresses of public school employees based on a single-judge order issued by this Court in litigation brought by PSEA. During the PSEA litigation, this Court enjoined OOR from ordering disclosure of school employees' home addresses based on a constitutional right to privacy (Injunction Order). Relevant here, OOR directed the School District to redact public school employees' home addresses from the Property List. Citing the Injunction Order, the trial court vacated OOR's redaction order, and permitted the School District to withhold the entire Property List. Because the trial court erred in upholding the denial of access to addresses contained in the Property List, we reverse the trial court's orders and direct disclosure.

         I. Background

         Relevant here, Requester submitted a RTKL request to the School District seeking the Superintendent's home address[3] and an unredacted copy of the most recent Property List. See Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 5a (Request). The School District denied access, citing the Injunction Order in the PSEA litigation. Requester timely appealed to OOR.

         OOR permitted both parties to supplement the record. The School District submitted an affidavit of its Director of Business Services, Catherine Rodgers. R.R. at 84a (Affidavit). She attested that the property tax assessment records do not identify property owners' employers. As a result, the School District could not redact home addresses of public school employees from the Property List.

         Requester argued the Injunction Order did not bind school districts. In addition, it asserted the Injunction Order was contrary to this Court's subsequent decisions holding home addresses were not protected by a right to privacy.[4]

         OOR issued its final determination denying the appeal in part, reasoning the Injunction Order precluded it from directing access to public school employees' home addresses. Pennsylvanians for Union Reform (PFUR) v. Butler Area Sch. Dist., OOR Dkt. No. AP 2014-0777 (Final Determination). The Injunction Order stated in pertinent part: "The release of records maintained by public school districts that contain the home addresses of public school employees is hereby stayed until further order of this court." R.R. at 80a (emphasis added). It further provided "[OOR] is enjoined from directing the release of records maintained by public school districts that contain the home address of public school employees pursuant to the [RTKL] until further order of this court." Id. at 88a. Pursuant to the Injunction Order, OOR directed the School District to redact the home addresses of public school employees from the Property List.

         Both the School District and Requester appealed to the trial court. Requester challenged the Final Determination for requiring redaction of public school employees' addresses from the Property List. It also argued the Injunction Order did not govern the School District. The School District challenged OOR's redaction directive, asserting impossibility of performance because the Property List contained no employer information.

         After argument, the trial court relied on the record created before OOR. As to Requester's appeal, the trial court affirmed denial of the Superintendent's home address. By separate order, the trial court granted the School District's appeal, vacating the part of the Final Determination requiring redaction of the Property List. Requester appealed both orders to this Court.

         As directed by the trial court, Requester filed concise statements of the errors complained of on appeal under Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b). In its nearly identical Rule 1925(a) opinions, the trial court reasoned it was bound by the Injunction Order because it was issued by a higher court. Tr. Ct., Slip Op., 10/15/14, at 7 (Dkt. No. 14-40163). As a consequence, the trial court permitted the School District to withhold the entire Property List.

         After briefing, this Court scheduled the appeals for argument. Subsequently, our Supreme Court clarified that the 2009 injunction as to disclosure of public school employees' home addresses continued as modified by the 2014 Injunction Order. Upon Requester's application, we stayed the matter pending the Supreme Court's disposition of the PSEA litigation.

         Relevant here, our Supreme Court issued PSEA III in October 2016. In so doing, our Supreme Court confirmed the right to privacy construed to protect home addresses sought under the predecessor to the RTKL (Former Law[5]) remained in force as embedded in Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

         This Court consolidated the appeals and requested supplemental briefs as to the effect of PSEA III. Requester argued PSEA III did not compel withholding of the Property List. The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association submitted an amicus curiae brief aligned with Requester's position. The School District moved to strike the appeals based on mootness; Requester answered. Following argument on the motion, this Court denied it. After argument, [6] the matter is ready for disposition.

         II. Discussion

         A. Contentions

         In these consolidated appeals, [7] Requester argues the trial court erred in holding the Injunction Order enjoins the School District from disclosing home addresses of public school employees because the School District was not a party to the PSEA litigation. It contends the Injunction Order did not bind the trial court. Regardless, it maintains the trial court erred in extending the Injunction Order to protect the entire Property List. Requester emphasizes that the Property List is a public record under statute and case law construing the Former Law.

         The School District counters the trial court's opinion was in conformity with the Injunction Order. It argues the Injunction Order bound school districts because it required OOR to notify all school districts that disclosure of home addresses were stayed pending resolution of the PSEA litigation. It also contends the Injunction Order bound the trial court because this Court is a higher tribunal. Based on PSEA III, the School District asserts public school employees' home addresses in the Property List are protected by a constitutional privacy right.

         B. Analysis

         "[T]he current RTKL, [compared to the Former Law] 'significantly expanded public access to governmental records ... with the goal of promoting government transparency.'" Pa. State Police v. Grove, 161 A.3d 877, 892 (Pa. 2017) (quoting Levy v. Senate of Pa., 65 A.3d 361, 368 (Pa. 2013)). A "record" qualifies for access through the RTKL when it "documents a transaction or activity of an agency." Section 102 of the RTKL, 65 P.S. §67.102 (emphasis added); see Highmark, Inc. v. Voltz, 163 A.3d 485 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017) (en banc).

         As a local agency, the School District has a statutory duty to "provide public records in accordance with [the RTKL]." Section 302 of the RTKL, 65 P.S. §67.302. Records in the School District's possession are presumed "public" unless they are: (1) exempted by Section 708 of the RTKL; (2) protected by a privilege; or (3) exempted "under any other Federal or State law or regulation or judicial order or decree." Section 305 of the RTKL, 65 P.S. §67.305 (emphasis added). State statutes that designate public nature supersede the RTKL. Section 306 of the RTKL, 65P.S. §67.306; see Highmark (holding insurance statutes protected requested information).

         At the outset, we emphasize that the only record at issue in this appeal is the Property List.[8] Requester sought a list "that show[s] each property owner's name and property address for properties within the geographic confines of the [S]chool [D]istrict." R.R. at 5a (bold added, italics in original).

         The School District uses the Property List to prepare tax duplicates. See Section 677.1 of the Public School Code, 24 P.S. §6-677.1.[9] Although it originated with the county, the Property List qualifies as a record "of" the School District because the School District uses it to conduct agency business. See Bagwell v. Dep't of Educ., 76 A.3d 81 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2013) (en banc).

         1. Judicial Order

         Under the RTKL, an agency may withhold a record based on a judicial order. Section 305(a)(3) of the RTKL, 65 P.S. §67.305(a)(3). Here, the trial court relied on the Injunction Order to exempt the Property List in its entirety. In so doing, the trial court fell into error.

         Importantly, the judicial order that forms the basis for exempting a record from disclosure must apply to the record at issue. Office of Dist. Att'y of Phila. v. Bagwell, 155 A.3d 1119 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017). Our examination of the language of the Injunction Order reveals that it pertained to the home addresses of public school employees only. However, there was no evidence that established the Property List contained public school employees' home addresses. Indeed, the School District submitted evidence that it could not differentiate between the property addresses contained in the Property List based on employer, because employers were not identified. R.R. at 84a. The School District had the burden to prove the application of its exemption. Pure speculation as to a record's contents is not evidence that may substantiate an exemption.

         The trial court cautiously, but erroneously, construed the Injunction Order to apply to all property addresses contained in the Property List. In so doing, the trial court in effect extended the Injunction Order beyond its terms.

         In addition, as OOR recognized, the Injunction Order was limited to home addresses only. However, there is no evidence that all property addresses contained in the Property List correspond to home addresses.[10] Further, the School District asserted no grounds to protect the entire record beyond the alleged impossibility of redaction. Thus, the trial court had no legal basis for vacating OOR's order to the extent it required redaction of certain home addresses from the Property List.

         In vacating OOR's redaction requirement, the trial court did not apply the redaction mandate under the RTKL. Section 706 of the RTKL, 65 P.S. §67.706, provides that records shall be disclosed with the protected parts redacted. Our Supreme Court requires redaction to ensure that public parts of records are disclosed in accordance with the RTKL. See Grove; Pa. Pub. Util. Comm'n v. Seder/The Times Leader, 139 A.3d 165 (Pa. 2016).

         Additionally, the Injunction Order bound only the parties to the PSEA litigation. Paterra v. Charleroi Area Sch. Dist., 349 A.2d 813 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1975). The School District was not a party to, and did not otherwise participate in, the PSEA litigation.

         In short, the trial court erred by allowing the School District to withhold the entire Property List. However, that does not end our inquiry as the Injunction Order was for all intents and purposes supplanted by PSEA III.

         2. PSEA III & Privacy Right

         In PSEA III, our Supreme Court held the right to informational privacy is guaranteed by Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. It safeguards certain "inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing [citizens'] own happiness." Pa. Const. art. I, §1. Notably, in holding public school employees enjoyed a right to privacy in their home addresses, the Court drew upon its precedent construing the Former Law.

         Decisions under the Former Law recognized a right to privacy inuring in three types of identifiers: Social Security numbers, telephone numbers and home addresses. See Tribune-Review Publ'g Co. v. Bodack, 961 A.2d 110 (Pa. 2008); Penn State Univ. v. State Emps.' Ret. Bd., 935 A.2d 530 (Pa. 2007) (PSU v. SERB); Sapp Roofing Co. v. Sheet Metal Workers' Int'l Ass'n, Local Union No. 12, 713 A.2d 627 (Pa. 1998) (plurality op.); see also Times Publ'g Co., Inc. v. Michel, 633 A.2d 1233 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993). In PSEA III, our Supreme Court recognized the continued vitality of that privacy jurisprudence under the current RTKL.

         Analyzing the scope of the right to privacy under Article I, Section 1, our Supreme Court explained "the right … concerns avoiding disclosure of personal matters. The object of such a right is, in part, to protect an individual from revealing matters which could impugn his character and subject him to ridicule or persecution." Stenger v. Lehigh Valley Hosp. Ctr., 609 A.2d 796, 800 (Pa. 1992). In Stenger, the Court noted the right is not offended when the information is rendered anonymous. It explained: "With no name associated with the disclosure, no disrepute can occur." Id. at 800-01.

         A home address is a type of information that may be considered a personal matter. Bodack; PSU v. SERB; Sapp Roofing. In sharp contrast, the Property List is a record of owners of taxable real property that has been assessed to generate revenue for the government. A property address contained in the Property List correlates to a taxable property, not necessarily to a person's home. Even the mailing address a property owner provides to a taxing authority is not necessarily a home address. Goppelt v. City of Phila. Revenue Dep't, 841 A.2d 599 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004). Thus, an address contained in the Property ...


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