Should open-records law apply to PIAA? PA Supreme Court to decide

·5 min read

The state's highest court will determine whether the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports statewide, is subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of a unanimous state Commonwealth Court decision that found the PIAA must abide by the Right-to-Know Law, passed in 2008.

The open-records law specifically names the PIAA as one of several "state-affiliated" entities that fall under the statute and must disclose financial records and other information.

The PIAA's "classification as a ‘state-affiliated entity' for purposes of the RTKL is reasonable," according to the Commonwealth Court ruling, issued in November. The ruling affirmed a state Office of Open records decision from January 2021.

The PIAA in December asked the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal, and the high court granted the appeal request on Wednesday. The next step is for the court to schedule a hearing.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association jurisdiction includes state football championship games, like the one shown here at Hersheypark Stadium in November 2020. The organization is fighting a court ruling that it is subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association jurisdiction includes state football championship games, like the one shown here at Hersheypark Stadium in November 2020. The organization is fighting a court ruling that it is subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law.

The state Supreme Court is not required to hear an appeal in every case in which an appeal is sought. It typically hears appeals in cases of statewide importance or cases in which the lower courts issued conflicting decisions.

In granting what is known as a petition for allowance of appeal, the seven-member state Supreme Court narrowed the topics that it will consider in the PIAA case.

Battle goes on:Is PIAA subject to Right-to-Know Law? State, appeals court say yes, but PIAA still fighting

The state Supreme Court's order said it will review the PIAA's contention that the Commonwealth Court erred by finding that the specific inclusion of the PIAA in the Right-to-Know Law "did not constitute special legislation and a violation of PIAA's equal protection rights." The state Supreme Court will also review whether the Commonwealth Court erred — as the PIAA claims it did — by finding that the Right-to-Know Law supersedes the state's nonprofit corporation law of 1988 regarding disclosure of records.

The PIAA, according to the order, is arguing that it is not subject to the Right-to-Know Law, despite its specific inclusion in the law, because of the nonprofit corporation law and because the PIAA "is a private non-profit corporation that receives no Commonwealth funding of any kind, has not been granted and does not exercise any legislatively-granted powers, is not controlled by Commonwealth personnel and was not created by an act of the General Assembly."

The state Supreme Court's ruling will settle whether the Right-to-Know Law has jurisdiction over the PIAA. A decision in favor of the PIAA would all but shut off public access to the PIAA's records, even though the organization had been abiding by the Right-to-Know Law and filling records requests since the law was passed — albeit under protest.

'Frivolous' requests?

In its 7-0 decision that went against the PIAA, the Commonwealth Court decided in favor of a Bucks County resident, Simon Campbell, who requested PIAA records in November 2020. The PIAA in that case claimed it does not fall under the Right-to-Know Law.

The lawyer for Campbell, Craig Staudenmaier, of Harrisburg, declined to comment on the state Supreme Court's decision to hear an appeal, saying that he had to discuss the case with Campbell. The executive director of the PIAA, Robert Lombardi, declined to comment, saying the PIAA does not comment on active litigation.

In December 2020, as the litigation over Campbell's request was starting to unfold, Lombardi said the PIAA was concerned about 'frivolous requests" under the Right-to-Know Law.

"This isn't about not granting access to information, but more about requests that are pushing the envelope," Lombardi said at the time.

Staudenmaier, Campbell's lawyer, rejected that argument in an interview in January, after the PIAA filed its appeal request with the state Supreme Court.

"Just because a request is burdensome because it might involve a large number of records doesn't mean you don't have an obligation to produce them in a timely manner," Staudenmaier said.

Path of the appeal

In the PIAA case, the Commonwealth Court's 28-page decision against theorganization was published as precedent on Nov. 30. It upheld a ruling that the state Office of Open Records issued on Jan. 13, 2021.

The OOR had declared the PIAA subject to the Right-to-Know Law in response to the PIAA's appeal of a request for records by Campbell. He asked the PIAA, which includes 12 regional districts, to disclose thousands of records, including financial statements and legal communications from 2012 until around the end of 2020.

OOR decision:PA Office of Open Records rules against PIAA, affirms agency falls under Right-to-Know Law

The PIAA responded that some of the records did not exist, and that it is not subject to the Right-to-Know Law in any case. Campbell won his appeal to the OOR, and thePIAA then appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, made up of nine elected judges. The panel of seven of the judges rejected the PIAA's arguments that it is not subject to the Right-to-Know Law, despite its inclusion in the law.

Counter-objection:PIAA files suit in Commonwealth Court, saying Pa. Right-to-Know Law should not apply to it

The Commonwealth Court's opinion noted that the "PIAA is the de facto statewide regulator of high school sports across the Commonwealth." The ruling reiterated a state Supreme Court finding in another case that the PIAA receives its funding from member fees from school districts and from gate receipts from athletic events that involve public high schools.

"As PIAA undertakes state action and is funded primarily by public school districts" according to the Commonwealth Court opinion, "the General Assembly's classification of PIAA as a ‘state-affiliated entity' for the purpose of qualifying as an agency under the RTKL has a rational basis and furthers a legitimate state interest of transparency in PIAA's use of public funds in a manner that dramatically impacts students' lives."

The state Supreme Court will determine whether the Commonwealth Court's reasoning was correct.

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: PIAA case: PA's highest court to decide if open-records law applies