Pennsylvania court dismisses on jurisdictional grounds state teachers’ union suit to block disclosure of teachers’ addresses under state’s open record law
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ruled that it lacks original jurisdiction to hear a suit by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) challenging the disclosure of teachers’ home addresses pursuant to the state’s Right-to-Know Law (RKL). It concluded that because PSEA had named the Office of Open Records (OOR) — a quasi-judicial tribunal — as a defendant, it had had named an agency that had no cognizable interest in the outcome. As a result, PSEA’s suit fell outside the statutory parameters set for the Commonwealth Court to exercise original jurisdiction in actions against the Commonwealth government because in order for an agency to satisfy the requirement it must have a cognizable interest in the outcome.
When a request is made under RKL, noted the court, there are two parties: the requester and the agency whose records have been requested. In those instances, OOR acts as ”the tribunal that resolves disputes between requesters and agencies.” OOR itself, “as a quasi-judicial tribunal, lacks any interest in the outcome of its adjudications.” It emphasized that when challenging a statute or its application, “it is never acceptable to name a court as the defendant,” and ”[i]t is no different for the Office of Open Records, which functions as a quasi-judicial tribunal, not a regulatory agency.” Because requests for teachers’ home addresses are made to school districts who possess those records, the appropriate defendant to PSEA’s suit would be the school districts that hold records and personal information that PSEA seeks to protect from disclosure.
Pennsylvania State Educ, Ass’n v. Commonwealth of Pa., No. 09-396 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Sept. 24, 2010)
[In a discussion of the decision in the York Daily Record, Kim de Bourbon, executive director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said that, based on the ruling, PSEA could approach each school district if it chooses to pursue the issue. "I guess the PSEA could send letters to every public school district in the state, expressing their concern about the availability of teacher addresses and asking school districts to withhold them from Right-to-Know requests," de Bourbon said. She added that the Right-to-Know law is written so that a decision will have to be made on a case-by-case basis and then go to local courts. However, de Bourbon expressed the opinion that "PSEA would be better served to lobby getting the wording in the law changed, if they feel teacher addresses should not be a matter of public record." She also noted that PSEA could use an exception to keep home addresses private. The first exception in the law protects records that "would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual." A summary of the article is available at the first link below.
Meanwhile, the Erie Times-News reported that the Erie Education Association (EEA), which represents teachers employed by Erie School District(ESD), lost a test case over the public release of information on the discipline of educators. The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB), in a 3-0 decision, upheld a ruling against the Erie Education Association over a fired guidance counselor, Denice Manus, who unsuccessfully ran for Erie School Board in the May 2009 primary. The PLRB said the school district violated no labor laws when it honored a Right-to-Know Law request from the Erie Times-News and provided the newspaper with two labor arbitration decisions that affirmed the Erie School Board's dismissal of Manus in 2007. ESD and EEA, which filed a charge of unfair labor practices, said the case was the first of its kind statewide. A victory for the union would have hindered the ability of school districts throughout Pennsylvania to release to the public similar information about the discipline of educators, said the lawyer for the Erie School District, Richard Perhacs.
The PLRB said the kind of arbitration decisions at issue in the Manus case are already available to the public in other ways, such as through a subscription service with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The PLRB said nothing in the labor contract between the Erie School District and the teachers union prohibited the district from releasing the information about Manus, as the teachers union claimed.
EEA also unsuccessfully argued that the district's release of the arbitration decisions on Manus might unfairly deter other union members from pursuing grievances that could result in arbitration decisions. Because of "the availability of this information to newspapers from any number of sources," the district's release of the information to the Erie Times-News "does not, and would not, deter a reasonable (employee) from filing a grievance to challenge an adverse employment action," the PLRB said. A summary of the article is available at the second link below and a copy of the PLRB order is available at the third link below.]
Source: Erie Times News, 9/27/10, By Ed Palattella
Source: York Daily Record, 9/25/10, By Rebecca LeFever