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Private Parties Cannot Contract Away Right to Access Public Records

Pennsylvania accounting firm Cogen, Sklar and Levick (Firm) petitioned for declaratory judgment that a settlement agreement's terms of confidentiality exempted the agreement's public disclosure. The insurance department, a party to the agreement, along with the Philadelphia Enquirer, filed preliminary objections to the petition. The court dismissed the petition with prejudice.

The Firm settled a claim against itself and stipulated to a confidentiality clause. The Enquirer requested copies of the release from the insurance department, which relayed its production intent to the Firm, which petitioned for a ruling to determine disclosure of the properly executed settlement agreement under the Right to Know Act (Act).
The insurance department and the Enquirer objected, arguing that the Act mandated every public record's disclosure for examination and inspection by any citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under 65 P.S. ' 66.2. The Firm argued that absent a court order, decisional law or statutory law to the contrary, a confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement removed the information from public disclosure or scrutiny.

The Second Division for the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania held that the complaint lacked allegations that the agreement and confidentiality clause were reviewed by a court or were approved or ordered as such, or that there was a judicial order prohibiting disclosure. The Court further ruled that the Firm had failed to present a cognizable cause of action upon which relief could be granted. See: Cogen v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 814 A.2d 825 (Pa. Commw. 2003).

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Related legal case

Cogen v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania