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Allegheny County v. Hailer

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 1469 CD 2021

Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

Clients: Brittany Hailer and Pittsburgh Current

Petition for Review Filed: April 28, 2021

Background: In December 2020, Brittany Hailer, managing editor for the Pittsburgh Current, filed a public records request with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. Hailer sought the autopsy and toxicology report for Daniel Pastorek, an inmate who died at the county jail in November 2020.

A month after filing her request, the medical examiner provided Hailer with the cause and manner of Pastorek’s death, but denied access to the autopsy records. The medical examiner argued that the autopsy records are exempt from disclosure because Allegheny County is considered a second-class county. According to the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Act, coroners of first- and second-class counties are not required to file their records with the county court system.

Hailer appealed to the Office of Open Records, which granted the request, rejecting the county’s argument that it was exempt from having to provide the records. The county then filed a petition for review in the County Court of Common Pleas in April challenging the OOR’s determination.

In May, Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, began representing Hailer and the Pittsburgh Current in this case.

Updates: On Dec. 1, 2021, Judge W. Terrence O’Brien reversed the final determination of the Office of Open Records. A couple of weeks later, Hailer appealed Judge O’Brien’s decision to the Commonwealth Court. On Jan. 31, 2023, the Commonwealth Court issued an order directing the case to be presented for oral argument before all the judges at the next available session. In a 6-1 decision issued on July 11, 2023, the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and ordered Allegheny County to produce the requested autopsy records. “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 the County or Philadelphia County,” Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote in the majority opinion. “In the latter circumstance, only a nongovernmental agency investigating an insurance claim or determining liability for a decedent’s death is permitted access to coroner records. There is no language in the RTKL or the Coroner’s Act to suggest that access to certain public records depends on the county class in which the records are located.”


2021-03-31: Office of Open Records’ final determination

2021-04-28: County petition for review

2021-05-14: RCFP entry of appearance

2021-05-17: Certification of record

2021-07-02: Brief in support of petition for review

2021-08-02: Brief of Hailer and Pittsburgh Current in response to petition for judicial review

2021-12-01: Opinion and order

2021-12-15: Notice of appeal

2022-07-27: Hailer’s principal brief

2022-07-27: Amicus brief of Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic in support of Hailer

2022-07-27: Amicus brief of the Abolitionist Law Center and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in support of Hailer

2022-09-06: Brief of Allegheny County

2022-09-06: Amicus brief of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association in support of the Allegheny County Medical Examiner

2022-09-20: Hailer’s reply brief

2023-01-31: Order

2023-07-11: Commonwealth Court majority opinion and dissent

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