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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Sanctions and Award of $118,458 in Attorney Fees Against DOC for Withholding Documents Requested Under Right-to-Know Law

On December 22, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a decision of a lower court finding the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) acted in bad faith in responding to a request for records under the state’s Right-to-Know (RTK) Law, 65 P.S. §§ 67.101-67.3104, making the award of $118,458.37 in attorney fees to the records requester party and sanctions appropriate.

In September 2014, the Abolitionist Law Center published a report entitled No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at [SCI] Fayetteville alleging a causal connection between prisoners’ health problems and a nearby fly ash dumpsite. In response, the DOC worked with the Department of Health to investigate the report’s allegations.

That same month, Herald Standard reporter Christine Haines sent the DOC a RTK request for documentation of SCI-Fayette prisoners’ illnesses, with emphasis on cancer and respiratory illnesses and any comparisons of their health with that of prisoners in other prisons, but excluding any identifying information. The DOC denied the request and Haines appealed.

The Office of Open Records reversed, ordering the DOC to produce “all responsive documents” within 30 days. The DOC disclosed 15 pages of records on the deadline date and a couple of additional records the next month. Haines and her employer filed a petition for enforcement in the Commonwealth Court, alleging the DOC acted in bad faith in its records request response and seeking attorney fees and statutory sanctions.

The court determined that the DOC was not required to disclose the records of individual prisoners, but it had failed to disclose other records so numerous that the court could not determine the full extent of its nondisclosure. Ultimately, the court ordered the DOC to disclose additional records, held that the DOC had acted in bad faith, assessed the maximum statutory sanction of $1,500 and ordered the DOC to pay $118,458.37 in attorney fees to the opposing party.

On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the DOC’s open records officer did nothing other than forward Haines’ RTK request to the Bureau of Healthcare Services and did not contact any of its contractors regarding the request. The open records officer was required to direct requests to other appropriate persons within the agency and, by failing to do so, acted in bad faith. The court favorably quoted amicus curaie Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, “[a good faith response—either to produce records or assert an exemption—cannot occur absent a good faith search, followed by collection and review of responsive records.”

The court held that the sanctions and attorney fees—a little over half the amount requested—were justified by the DOC’s bad faith and the fact that its determination was reversed. It upheld the sanctions and attorney fees award. See: Uniontown Newspapers, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 243 A.3d 19 (Pa. 2020).  


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Related legal case

Uniontown Newspapers, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections