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Conflicts in Statute Regarding Document Disclosures Yield to Right to Know: Settlement Ordered Released

The Westmoreland County Housing Authority (WCHA) sought review from an appellate order affirming the production of records regarding a settlement agreement between the WCHA's former employee and its insurer. The document was again determined to be a public record and subject to public inspection.

The settlement agreement ended a federal gender lawsuit and agreed to nondisclosure and an undisclosed monetary payment. As the document was entered into by the WCHA's insurer on behalf of and fully entitled by the WCHA, and involved the disbursement of public funds, the court deemed it public in nature and ordered its disclosure to the Tribune Review Publishing Company. On appeal, the court affirmed the disclosure. The WCHA filed for Supreme Court review arguing that the appellate court erred in not following or even addressing its own ruling in a previous case; erred regarding the nature of the relationship between the WCHA and its insurer; and failed to resolve the conflict caused by the ruling, as compliance with the Right to Know Act (Act) caused a breech of contract between the two parties when they are not parties in this case.

On review, the Second Division of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the ruling in the previous case mentioned by the WCHA differed due to the relationship between the WCHA and its insurer; while the WCHA did not have possession of the settlement agreement, it had control over its production; and that although the conflict under the exemption clause of the Act may hinder future attempts to resolve disputes, courts have concluded that the risk must yield to the public's right to know. The Court further concluded that those who wish to have a settlement remain confidential may petition the court to have the record sealed resulting in nondisclosure in appropriate circumstances, and affirmed disclosure in this case.

The dissent claimed that the technical possession of the document and the account from which the funds were disbursed deemed the document private, not public. See: Tribune Review Publishing Company v. Westmoreland County Housing Authority, 574 Pa. 661, 833 A.2d 112 (Pa. 2003).

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Related legal case

Tribune Review Publishing Company v. Westmoreland County Housing Authority