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$118,000 Attorney Fee Award in Pennsylvania DOC Public Records Case

by David M. Reutter

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania awarded $118,458.37 in attorney fees in a public records suit brought by Uniontown Newspapers. The award followed the court’s finding that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) had acted in “bad faith” by not producing the requested records.

Reporter Christine Haines with the Herald-Standard in Uniontown was investigating the potential effects of a coal fly ash dump on the health of prisoners at a nearby prison. In 2014, she requested records concerning prisoners’ medical conditions. The PDOC refused to provide the documents, arguing they were exempt under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. The newspaper successfully appealed to the state Office of Open Records; prison officials then produced 15 pages of charts that showed how many prisoners suffered from various illnesses and how many had died from cancer. Not convinced it had received all the requested records, the Herald-Standard filed suit alleging prison officials had acted in “bad faith.”

After four years of litigation and a trial, in March 2018 the Commonwealth Court held the PDOC “did not make a good faith effort” to determine if it possessed or had access to all of the requested records. “An agency’s failure to locate responsive records until motivated by litigation evinces bad faith,” the court wrote. It ordered the PDOC to turn over all additional records and imposed a $1,500 fine, which was the maximum under the Right-to-Know Law.

Following that ruling, the newspaper moved for reasonable attorney fees and costs. It requested fees of $215,190.75 plus $7,500 in costs, but in an October 29, 2018 order the Commonwealth Court found the request for costs was not properly supported by evidence. The paper had provided only a listing of costs incurred and their payment; absent evidence to show their “reasonableness,” the court said it could not award costs.

The Commonwealth Court also reduced the paper’s requested attorney fees. It denied fees for unnecessary filings in the case, including a motion to publish the court’s ruling on the PDOC’s bad faith and a response to the PDOC’s appeal to the state Supreme Court. The court then apportioned the requested fees to the level of success at each stage of the case, concluding that a fee award of $118,458.37 was proper. See: Uniontown Newspapers v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Case No. 66 M.D. 2015. 

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Additional source: mccall.com

Related legal case

Uniontown Newspapers v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections