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West Chester University of Pennsylvania v. Rodriguez

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 24, 2019

West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Petitioner
v.
Adrian Rodriguez, Respondent

          Submitted: February 22, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge, HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, Judge.

          OPINION

          P. Kevin Brobson, Judge.

         West Chester University of Pennsylvania (the University) petitions for review of the July 12, 2018 final determination (Final Determination) of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) under the Right-to-Know Law (RTKL).[1] In the Final Determination, the OOR granted the appeal of Adrian Rodriguez (Respondent)[2] and directed the University to provide Respondent with all responsive records pursuant to Respondent's RTKL request. For the reasons that follow, we will vacate the Final Determination and remand this matter to the OOR for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 17, 2018, Respondent filed a RTKL request with the University seeking the following records:

[E]mails from the Office of Student Conduct from [January 1, 2017] to [January 17, 2018] from Christina Brenner, Shelly Siedzikowski, and Dawn Welch that pertain to:
-Adrian Rodriguez, [student ]ID # . . .[3]
-Office of Student Conduct Case ID # . . .
-Computer Science Club
. . . [E]mails from the Computer Science department from [January 1, 2017] to [January 17, 2018] from Dr. Richard Burns, Dr. James Fabrey, and Dr. Si Chen pertaining to:
-Adrian Rodriguez, SID # . . .
-Office of Student Conduct Case ID # . . .
-Computer Science Club

         (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 10a.) On February 23, 2018, the University provided 50 pages of the requested emails to Respondent and denied access to the remaining responsive emails. In its accompanying response, the University claimed that the emails it did not provide-totaling approximately 500 pages-are exempt from RTKL disclosure because they are protected by the statute commonly known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).[4] The University's response also informed Respondent that, with respect to the withheld records, it would consider the RTKL request as a request to review Respondent's own education records pursuant to FERPA.

         Respondent appealed the University's action to the OOR on March 5, 2018. In mid-April of 2018, during the appeal proceeding, the University provided Respondent with the remaining pages of responsive records it had withheld, after partially or wholly redacting some of those pages to remove personally identifiable information (PII) of students other than Respondent.[5] In its submission of argument to the OOR, the University claimed that it provided the second set of pages pursuant to FERPA (and not the RTKL), which should render moot Respondent's appeal to the OOR. The University also argued that any responsive records beyond the first 50 pages provided to Respondent are education records under FERPA and are, therefore, exempt from disclosure under the RTKL. In the Final Determination granting Respondent's appeal, the OOR concluded that the approximately 500 pages of emails the University had initially withheld are not education records under FERPA because the records are (1) not academic records, and (2) not kept in the central, permanent file of any student. Accordingly, the OOR, considering the University's position that the records are protected under the RTKL as a result of their status as education records under FERPA, concluded that the records are not exempt from disclosure under the RTKL. The OOR directed the University to provide them to Respondent, and the University petitioned this Court for review.

         II. ISSUES

         On appeal, [6] the University argues that the OOR erred in determining that the requested records are not education records under FERPA. Specifically, the University asserts that the OOR erred in concluding that: (1) the records are not education records because they do not directly relate to a student, and (2) the records are not education records because they are not maintained in the permanent file of any University student. The University claims that the records in question both directly relate to students and are maintained by the University, making them education records that are exempt from RTKL disclosure. The University also argues that, even if the records are not protected by FERPA, the OOR cannot order their disclosure without first following procedures required to protect student privacy interests in the requested records under the Pennsylvania Constitution.

         III. ...


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