Pa. State Educ. Ass'n v. Commonwealth

Decision Date21 August 2012
Citation283 Ed. Law Rep. 1021,50 A.3d 1263
PartiesThe PENNSYLVANIA STATE EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, by Lynne WILSON, General Counsel, William McGill, F. Darlene Albaugh, Heather Kolanich, Wayne Davenport, Frederick Smith, Jamie McPoyle, Brianna Miller, Valerie Brown, Janet Layton, Korri Brown, Al Reitz, Lisa Lang, Brad Group, and Randall Sovisky, Appellants v. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, DEPARTMENT OF COMMUNITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, Office of Open Records, and Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records, Appellees Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees, Ureneus V. Kirkwood, John B. Nye, Stephen M. Vak, and Richard Rowland and Simon Campbell, Intervenors.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Andrea L. Bowman, Governor's Office of General Counsel. Joshua Keesler Harman, for Amicus Curiae, Office of General Counsel.

Emily Hannah Bensinger, Amy Clement Foerster, William W. Warren, Jr., Saul Ewing LLP, Harrisburg, for PA Association of School Retirees, Ureneus V. Kirkwood, John B. Nye, Stephen M. Vak, Richard Rowland.

W. James Young, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc., Pittsburgh, for Simon Campbell.

Thomas W. Scott, Killian & Gephart, L.L.P., Harrisburg, Katherine Marie Voye, PA State Education Association (PSEA), for Pennsylvania State Education Association, et al.

John R. Bielski, Nancy B.G. Lassen, Ralph J. Teti, Alaine S. Williams, Deborah R. Willig, Willig, Williams & Davidson, Philadelphia, for Appellant Amicus Curiae, Council 13, AFSCME, et al.

Nathanael J. Byerly, Terry Lee Mutchler, Office of Open Records, for Office of Open Records and Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of the Office of Open Records.

Steven Jay Fishman, PA Department of Community and Economic Development, for Department of Community and Economic Development.

Susan Jane Forney, PA Office of Attorney General, Harrisburg, for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Dena Lefkowitz, J Chadwick Schnee, Office of Open Records, for Office of Open Records.

Claudia Davidson, for Appellee Amicus Curiae, SEIU Healthcare PA, SEIU, CTW.

BEFORE: CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

OPINION

Justice SAYLOR.

This direct appeal concerns the Commonwealth Court's jurisdiction over a suit brought by public school employees for injunctive and declaratory relief against the Office of Open Records, seeking to protect the employees' home addresses from disclosure under the Right to Know Law.

I. Background

Appellants are individual school employees from multiple school districts and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), an organization whose membership consists of teachers and education support professionals (collectively, Appellants). Due to concerns surrounding the potential disclosure of school employees' names and home addresses under the recently enacted Right–to–Know Law (“RTKL”), see65 P.S. §§ 67.101–67.3104, 1 the PSEA sought guidance from the Office of Open Records (the OOR) in the form of an advisory opinion. The OOR, however, dismissed the request as moot, as it had already issued final determinations directing the release of public records containing school employees' home addresses. See Green v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., No. AP 2009–0061, 2009 WL 6504420, at *5 (OOR Mar. 20, 2009) (“The OOR concludes that the School District could not establish a constitutional right to privacy in home addresses of private employees which is required to overcome their clear statutory exclusion.”).2

Subsequently, numerous RTKL requests were filed with school districts across Pennsylvania, seeking disclosure of the names and home addresses of school employees. Of particular concern to Appellants were several requests filed by an individual utilizing a post office box because it was unclear to whom and for what purpose the information would be disseminated. Upon discovering that many school districts had not challenged, or would not challenge, the release of such information, Appellants filed a petition for review against the OOR in the Commonwealth Court, seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting the disclosure of school employees' names and home addresses and a declaration that such information is exempt from disclosure under the RTKL. The Commonwealth Court granted two petitions to intervene by parties supporting the OOR, filed by: (1) Simon Campbell, President of StopTeacherStrikes, Inc., an advocacy group with the purpose of eliminating teacher strikes that often requests contact information for non-union school teachers, see Petition to Intervene of Simon Campbell, at 1–2; and (2) the Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees (“PASR”), an association of former school employees, which routinely requests the names and addresses of retired employees, see Brief of Intervenors Pennsylvania Association of School Retirees, Kirkwood, Nye, Vak and Rowland, at 5.

By single judge order, the Commonwealth Court granted Appellants' request for a preliminary injunction, staying the release of any home addresses and requiring the OOR to notify school districts of the existence of this litigation. See July 28, 2009 Order (Attached to Brief of Appellants as Exhibit 1). In a subsequent opinion, Judge Friedman explained that Appellants had established all of the prerequisite elements necessary for issuance of a preliminary injunction, see Summit Towne Ctr., Inc. v. Shoe Show of Rocky Mount, Inc., 573 Pa. 637, 646–47, 828 A.2d 995, 1001 (2003), and, with respect to Appellants' demonstration of a clear right to relief, specifically noted that both this Court and the Commonwealth Court have recognized that individuals possess a constitutionally protected privacy interest in their home addresses that outweighs the benefits of public disclosure. See PSEA ex rel. Wilson v. OOR, 981 A.2d 383, 385–86 (Pa.Cmwlth.2009) (citing, inter alia, Sapp Roofing Co., Inc. v. Sheet Metal Workers' Int'l Ass'n, Local Union No. 12, 552 Pa. 105, 111, 713 A.2d 627, 630 (1998) (“The disclosure of personal information (names, addresses, social security numbers, and phone numbers) reveals little, if anything, about the government's (in this case the school district's) compliance with” a particular statute.); Cypress Media, Inc. v. Hazleton Area Sch. Dist., 708 A.2d 866, 870 (Pa.Cmwlth.1998) ([T]his Court has held that a person's home address, home telephone number and social security number are not subject to disclosure under the [previous Right–to–Know] Act because the benefits of disclosing such information are outweighed by a person's privacy interests in that information.”) (citations omitted)).

This Court affirmed the issuance of the preliminary injunction, “without prejudice to any party's right to appeal the Commonwealth Court's final disposition of these proceedings.” PSEA ex rel. Wilson v. OOR, 606 Pa. 638, 2 A.3d 558 (2010) ( per curiam ). Subsequently, the OOR filed preliminary objections, arguing, inter alia, that the Commonwealth Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that the statutory remedy provided by the RTKL was exclusive, preventing Appellants from bringing a declaratory judgment action.

In a divided opinion, the Commonwealth Court sustained the OOR's preliminary objections, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction because Appellants had not named an indispensable Commonwealth party as a defendant. See PSEA v. OOR, 4 A.3d 1156, 1165–66 (Pa.Cmwlth.2010) ( en banc ) (“PSEA ”). The majority explained that, with certain exceptions not relevant to the present matter, it has original jurisdiction over “all civil actions or proceedings ... [a]gainst the Commonwealth government,including any officer thereof, acting in his official capacity.” 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1). However, the majority continued, simply naming a Commonwealth agency does not suffice for purposes of jurisdiction; rather, the Commonwealth agency named “must have a cognizable interest in the outcome of the action.” PSEA, 4 A.3d at 1164 (citing PSEA v. Dep't of Educ., 101 Pa.Cmwlth. 497, 516 A.2d 1308, 1310 (1986)); see also42 Pa.C.S. § 7540(a) (“When declaratory relief is sought, all persons shall be made parties who have or claim any interest which would be affected by the declaration, and no declaration shall prejudice the rights of persons not parties to the proceeding.”). The majority clarified that the Commonwealth agency must, in fact, be an indispensable party such that the proceeding “cannot conceivably be concluded with meaningful relief without the sovereign state itself becoming directly involved.” PSEA, 4 A.3d at 1164 (quoting Foreman v. Chester–Upland Sch. Dist., 941 A.2d 108, 113 (Pa.Cmwlth.2008)); see also CRY, Inc. v. Mill Serv., Inc., 536 Pa. 462, 469, 640 A.2d 372, 375 (1994) (stating that “the basic inquiry in determining whether a party is indispensable concerns whether justice can be done in the absence of a third party).

In connection with RTKL requests, the Commonwealth Court majority explained that there are only two parties, namely, the requester and the agency from which the records are sought. The majority characterized the OOR, however, as “the tribunal that resolves disputes between requesters and agencies.” PSEA, 4 A.3d at 1164. As the agency is a quasi-judicial tribunal without any interest in the outcome of its adjudications, the majority reasoned, the OOR was not a proper party to the present action. See id. (citing East Stroudsburg Univ. Found. v. OOR, 995 A.2d 496, 507 (2010) ( en banc ) (plurality) (holding that the OOR is not a party to appeals of its decisions because it has no interest in the release of another agency's records), appeal denied,20 A.3d 490 (Pa.2011) (Table)). Thus, the majority concluded that the OOR could not serve as the governmental unit over which the Commonwealth Court could exercise its original jurisdiction. See id. (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 761(a)(1)). Instead, the majority explained, the proper defendants were the individual...

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