Supreme Court directs Commonwealth Court to decide school teacher’s home address case

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, August 22, 2012, that a case brought by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) to prevent the Office of Open Records (OOR) from ordering school districts to release the home addresses of public school employees be remanded to the Commonwealth Court.  Pennslyvania State Eduation Association v. Com., Dep’t of Comm. And Econ. Dev’t., Off. of Open Records, 59 MAP 2010 (Pa. 8/22/12).  The Commonwealth Court had found that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the PSEA case.  It is now in the hands of the Commonwealth Court to decide whether records containing the home addresses of the public school employees are subject to public disclosure under the Right-to-Know Law.

Shortly after the enactment of the current version of the Right-to-Know Law, the OOR issued several final determinations directing school districts to release the home addresses of public school employees.  OOR held home addresses are public records because the Right-to-Know Law contained no specific exemption prohibiting the public disclosure of the home addresses of public employees.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court has held in a criminal case that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their home addresses in this day and age.

PSEA filed a petition for review against the OOR in the Commonwealth Court seeking injunctive relief and a declaration that the home addresses of school teachers are exempt from public disclosure.  PSEA asserted that public officials have a constitutional right to privacy in their home addresses.  PSEA did this without taking a direct appeal to the Commonwealth Court from any specific OOR final determination.  In essence, PSEA sought to leap frog over the OOR.

Judge Friedman of the Commonwealth Court issued a temporary injunction to prevent the OOR from directing school districts to release school teachers’ home addresses.  The Supreme Court affirmed the preliminary injunction pending the disposition of the merits in the Commonwealth Court.

Before the Commonwealth Court addressed the merits of the constitutional arguments raised by PSEA and OOR, the OOR filed preliminary objections to PSEA’s petition.  OOR argued that the Commonwealth Court lacked jurisdiction to hear PSEA’s petition because the Commonwealth Court only has jurisdiction over cases where Commonwealth agencies are a party.   OOR could not be an indispensible party because it acts as a neutral arbiter of open records disputes, rather than as an advocate seeking to obtain or prevent the disclosure of public records.

A divided Commonwealth Court accepted OOR’s argument and held that the Commonwealth Court lacked jurisdiction to decide PSEA’s petition.  The Commonwealth Court suggested that individual school districts should appeal the OOR’s adverse final determinations to the courts of common pleas throughout the Commonwealth; rather than through one centralized suit in the Commonwealth Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and directed it to address the merits of whether the home addresses of public school teachers are public records.  The Supreme Court was troubled that the OOR had settled on a construction of the Right-to-Know Law permitting the disclosure of personal information of school employees when the RTKL provided no method for any notification to such individuals.  Public school employees have no reliable administrative or judicial method under the Right-to-Know law to seek redress for the potential violation of their constitutional rights.  Thus, “it is just and proper for the OOR to be haled into court to address core and colorable issues connected with such treatment at the behest of affected persons and their associations.”  (J. Saylor, slip op. p. 21).