November 21, 2007
Public Records and Football Skirmishes
A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week issued its opinion in a dispute regarding public access to salary and related information about Penn State University employees including football coach Joe Paterno.
See Penn State Univ., et al, Aplts v. State Employees Retirement Board - No. 107 MAP 2006.
The case arose in 2002, when a Harrisburg newspaper sought disclosure of data regarding Paterno's salary level insofar as that information is evident in state employees retirement board records. The litigation led the court to interpret key aspects of Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act (RTKA), 65 P.S. §§ 66.1-66.9, specifically the definition of "public record" as including "any account, voucher or contract dealing with the receipt or disbursement of funds by an agency."
A four-judge majority concluded that the information about Paterno's salary held by the Retirement Board was covered by this definition, even though the information had not been created by the Retirement Board (but was held by the Board and used to determine a future guaranteed payment to Paterno). Nor was the information exempt from disclosure based on the status of the Retirement Board, common law or statutory fiduciary duties, or federal statutes regulating the financial services industry. The majority also rejected a claim that the information was exempt from disclosure under a statutory provision stating that public records do not include "any record, document, material, exhibit, pleading, report, memorandum or other
paper, . . . which would operate to the prejudice or impairment of a person's reputation or
In dissent, Chief Justice Cappy contended that the majority had erred in its threshold analysis, since in his judgment prior case law required that salary information not be deemed to all within the definition of public record until "retirement benefits are computed and paid."
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