On October 18, 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Pennsylvania State Education Association v. Commonwealth et al. – extending a constitutional right of informational privacy to public school employees with respect to their home addresses. As a result of the Court’s ruling, school districts are prohibited from releasing the home addresses of public school employees in response to requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law (“RTKL”). While the decision does not directly address home addresses and other personal information of township, borough and other municipal employees, the Court’s decision likely extends to such information and protects their dissemination in response to RTKL requests as well.
In general, the Right to Know Law was designed to provide broad access to information concerning the dealings of the state and local governments. First enacted as the Right to Know Act in 1957, the law codified the common law right to inspect public records by establishing procedures by which citizens could request records from the government agencies. That scheme was overhauled in 2008, with the Legislature creating a presumption of documents being public records and flipping the burden of establishing otherwise onto the responding agency. In addition to issues caused by the swarm of time-consuming requests faced by some local agencies, the law has been beset by legal challenges as flaws, gaps and vagaries in the Act’s language bubbled to the surface.
A fundamental issue raised by the RTKL has been the question of how to appropriately balance the public’s right to information about public dealings with the privacy rights of individuals employed by or contracting with public agencies. This issue came to the forefront in the context of a barrage of wholesale requests received by school districts across Pennsylvania for personal information of all of their teachers and faculty. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union representing public schoolteachers in the Commonwealth, challenged that aspect of the RTKL in 2009 and obtained a preliminary injunction on the basis that the practice violated employees’ constitutionally protected right to informational privacy in response to such requests.
After being before the Commonwealth Court and Pennsylvania Supreme Court in earlier appeals, the Pennsylvania State Education Association matter reached the Supreme Court most recently in the summer of 2015. At that point, the Commonwealth Court had held that the personal information of teachers and other district employees was not protected under the State Constitution, but that the RTKL and Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (“OOR”) failed to provide due process to teachers so that the rights of those third parties could be appropriately determined.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed. Analyzing the challenge in the context of previous cases that “require[ed] governmental agencies to respect the constitutional privacy rights of citizens . . . ,” the Court held that Article 1, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guaranteed Pennsylvania citizens a right to informational privacy that could not be violated unless outweighed by a public interest favoring disclosure. In assessing the constitutional protection of personal information, the Court balanced the pros and cons of disclosure to determine whether disclosure of such information “would operate to the prejudice or impairment of a person’s privacy, reputation, or personal security . . . .” Finding that the defendants failed to identify any “benefit [for the] disclosure of perhaps tens of thousands of addresses of public school teachers . . . ,” the Court concluded that the benefits of privacy outweighed disclosure and ruled in favor of PSEA. Thus, the home addresses of the public school employees are constitutionally protected from disclosure under the RTKL.
While the Court’s decision is limited to public school employees, the decision has important implications for municipalities, local agencies and their employees. Although different in certain regards, municipal employees and public school employees share many similarities, chief among them being their employment in the public sector. Thus, given the Supreme Court’s ruling, townships, boroughs and other local agencies should carefully consider whether a denial of a RTKL request implicating personal information of employees is warranted.
For more discussion and analysis of the Court’s decision, please see our companion article:
Michael G. Crotty, Esq., is a partner with Siana Bellwoar. He enjoys the experience of effectively and zealously represent municipal clients in the areas of Right to Know Law compliance, administration and management, labor and employment, land use and zoning, regulatory compliance, risk management, ordinance drafting, and civil rights claims.