The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ordered Allegheny County to provide journalist Brittany Hailer with autopsy records concerning a 63-year-old man who died in custody in 2020.
In a 6-1 decision, the full bench of the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court’s earlier ruling in favor of Allegheny County’s decision to withhold the records about the death of Daniel Pastorek. The appeals court held that the lower court erred in concluding that the disclosure of autopsy records were restricted to “nongovernmental agencies” conducting formal investigations of insurance claims or “determinations of liability for the death of a decedent.” It also rejected as “absurd” the argument that the autopsy records could be kept secret in Allegheny County because it is classified as a second-class county.
“We are thrilled that the Commonwealth Court ruled in our favor and ordered the county to turn over these autopsy records,” said Sasha Dudding, the E.W. Scripps Legal Fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who represented Hailer in this case alongside Local Legal Initiative Attorney Paula Knudsen Burke. “This decision isn’t just a win for Brittany Hailer — it’s also an important victory for the public’s right to access information about deaths in custody in Pennsylvania.”
Hailer, the director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (formerly The Pittsburgh Current), first requested the autopsy records in late 2020 to find out whether conditions at the Allegheny County Jail contributed to Pastorek’s death. As Hailer has since reported, Pastorek, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, was placed in a unit for suicidal inmates days after arriving at the jail in November 2020 with an apparent foot or leg injury. Inmates told Hailer that he had complained of chest pain and appeared unwell. He died on Thanksgiving Day.
In response to her request, the medical examiner provided information to Hailer stating that Pastorek died of natural causes as a result of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. However, the medical examiner denied access to the autopsy records, arguing that they are exempt from disclosure because Allegheny County is classified as a second-class county. According to the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Act, coroners of first- and second-class counties (the two largest counties: Philadelphia and Allegheny) are not required to file their records with the county court system.
Hailer appealed to the Office of Open Records, which rejected the county’s argument that it was exempt from having to provide the records. The county then appealed from the OOR to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in April 2021. The following month, Reporters Committee attorneys began representing Hailer in the case.
In late 2021, the Court of Common Pleas reversed the decision of the OOR, concluding that Allegheny County could withhold the autopsy records from Hailer. Under the Coroner’s Act, the court held, “[i]n order to be entitled to the records at issue, Requester must qualify as a ‘nongovernmental agenc[y]’ seeking ‘to determine liability for the death of the deceased.’”
Hailer then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the trial court made multiple errors in its decision. In addition to pointing out the issues with the lower court’s legal reasoning, Reporters Committee attorneys emphasized the significant public interest in reporting about the deaths of inmates at the county jail.
“The release of the records sought in Ms. Hailer’s [Right-to-Know Law] request would allow the public to assess any shortfalls within the Jail and to otherwise understand the Jail’s operations, particularly as they relate to inmate health and safety, as seen through the lens of one inmate’s death,” they argued.
Four organizations — the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, the Abolitionist Law Center, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project — submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Hailer, adding important legal and policy arguments to bolster the case for access to the autopsy records.
On July 11, the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court’s ruling. The appeals court held that the Coroner’s Act allows journalists and other members of the public to access autopsy records as long as they pay the required fees.
Writing for the majority, Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote that the statute “does not limit the receipt of coroner records to nongovernmental agencies seeking records for the purpose of investigating insurance claims or determining liability for the death of a decedent.”
The appeals court also dismissed the argument that the Coroner’s Act enables the largest counties in Pennsylvania to withhold autopsy records that other smaller counties in the Commonwealth are required to disclose.
“Accepting the conclusions of the trial court would lead to the absurd result that a requester could receive autopsy records located anywhere in the Commonwealth, unless those records are located in [Allegheny] County or Philadelphia County,” Judge Ceisler wrote. “There is no language in the [Right-to-Know Law] or the Coroner’s Act to suggest that access to certain public records depends on the county class in which the records are located.”
The Commonwealth Court ordered Allegheny County to turn over the records. However, it’s unclear if the county will comply or instead seek permission for an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Hailer says the appeals court’s ruling is an important win for government transparency and accountability in Pennsylvania. She says she’s eager to learn more details about Pastorek’s death.
Hailer credited the free legal support she received through the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative for making this outcome possible.
“What an incredible resource. What a privilege to have that labor for three years,” said Hailer, who praised the “brilliant” legal work of Burke and Dudding. “We’re very, very lucky to have a resource like this in Pennsylvania.”
“You’re helping change the news. You’re helping keep that [local news] ecosystem flourishing with your support for small outfits like us,” she added. “All of that hard work is sustaining and revitalizing local news and helping places that aren’t just the big guys hold our government accountable.”