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Judge rules Post-Gazette not entitled to see city's settlement agreement

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         PENNSYLVANIA         Freedom of Information         Jun 20, 2000    

Judge rules Post-Gazette not entitled to see city’s settlement agreement

  • A settlement agreement between the city of Pittsburgh and a former police officer is not a public record because it concerns a disciplinary decision involving personal privacy, a state trial judge has ruled.

A settlement agreement between a former Pittsburgh policeman and the city is not public because it contains confidential medical information and resulted from a disciplinary matter between the city and the former officer, Common Pleas Court Senior Judge Robert E. Dauer has ruled.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Timothy McNulty requested access to the terms of the settlement after the officer, Jeffrey Cooperstein, agreed to resign in mid May in exchange for dropping a wrongful-termination claim.

The city refused to release the settlement agreement, in part, because it stemmed from an investigation into Cooperstein’s conduct on the force. The city also claimed that disclosure of the settlement agreement would violate confidentiality provisions of its collective bargaining agreement with the police union. The newspaper then filed suit under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law to obtain the settlement agreement.

Under the Right to Know Law, those government documents that deal with the receipt or disbursement of government money or with government orders or decisions are public. The law, however, contains a broad exemption to protect records that result from government investigations. On behalf of the newspaper, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter to Judge Dauer explaining that the common law and public policy considerations prevent courts from enforcing contracts that frustrate open record laws.

The city fired Cooperstein a month after the December 1998 shooting death of a suspect who was fleeing police, alleging that Cooperstein violated police procedures. A jury later acquitted Cooperstein, finding he had used justifiable force against the suspect.

When the city refused to allow him back onto the force, Cooperstein filed a grievance with his labor union and requested an arbitration hearing. He and the city reached a settlement on the eve of the hearing.

On June 12, Judge Dauer ruled that the settlement agreement could be kept confidential, citing a 1992 Commonwealth Court opinion, which held that disciplinary decisions — and any settlement agreements that result from them — involve private information that should be kept secret. He also ruled that releasing the agreement would improperly reveal Cooperstein’s private medical information.

(PG Publishing v. City of Pittsburgh; Media counsel: Kevin Abbott, Pittsburgh) BB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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