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Pennsylvania court unseals court records in boarding school discrimination case

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  1. Court Access
The decision represents a victory for transparency in a matter that was largely litigated in secret.
Photo of the Milton Hershey School

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently ruled that court records from a case involving one of the nation’s wealthiest charitable institutions, the Milton Hershey School, must be made public following a motion by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Represented by attorneys from the Reporters Committee and Ballard Spahr LLP, The Inquirer sought the release of sealed documents from Milton Hershey School v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which addressed the question of whether the private, philanthropic boarding school is subject to the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the agency charged with enforcing state anti-discrimination laws.

The decision to unseal many records in the case represents a victory for transparency in a matter that was largely litigated in secret.

The case stems from a complaint filed with the Commission against the school under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination in a wide variety of settings, including businesses and other institutions that serve the general public. The school previously tried to have the complaint dismissed, arguing that it is not a public accommodation and is therefore not covered by the law. The Commonwealth Court has since ordered the Commission to resolve this jurisdictional question through its own formal hearing — something it had failed to do before denying the school’s motion to dismiss.

In a Feb. 11 opinion on the Inquirer’s motion to unseal, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer issued a detailed, multi-part order unsealing the majority of documents from the Hershey case, though some will remain sealed at least for the time being. Documents related to legal arguments considered by the Commonwealth Court will be released with minimal redactions on March 3, shedding light on the Hershey School’s argument that it is not covered by the language in the Pennsylvania law.

The Commonwealth Court ordered documents that were part of the agency record before the Commission and were then filed with the Commonwealth Court to remain sealed in light of “concerns” regarding public access to those materials “in the absence of valid waivers by those whose information is contained” in those records. Pursuant to the Commonwealth Court’s order, in the event valid waivers are submitted to the Commission, and the agency record is unsealed, The Inquirer may renew its request to have those portions of the agency record filed with the Court unsealed.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

Photo by Mr.TinDC

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