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SEPTA v. Reyes

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 143 C.D. 2022

Court: Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

Clients: Juliana Reyes, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Entry of Appearance Filed: March 25, 2022

Background: In September 2021, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Juliana Reyes asked the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority for records related to agreements six former employees had reached with SEPTA before leaving the agency. SEPTA is the primary public transit provider in the greater Philadelphia region.

As part of Reyes’ request under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law, the reporter sought “[r]ecords reflecting the reason” the former employees reached agreements with SEPTA.

In November, SEPTA partially granted the request but redacted crucial information, claiming it was exempt from disclosure under a Right to Know Law provision that protects personnel records. Reyes appealed to the Office of Open Records, seeking unredacted versions of the documents.

In January 2022, the OOR found in favor of Reyes. “[SEPTA] has not established that the responsive records contain exempt records of employee discipline or that the records are not expressly public settlement agreements,” the OOR appeals officer wrote. The appeals officer also noted that settlement agreements that involve the disbursement of public funds were not exempt under the state’s public records law.

In February 2022, SEPTA appealed the OOR’s final determination to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. A month later, Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, began representing Reyes and The Philadelphia Inquirer in this case. The case is currently pending in the Commonwealth Court’s mediation program.

Related: In 2021, Reporters Committee attorneys successfully represented WHYY and reporter Michaela Winberg in their effort to access several documents from SEPTA, including reports of sexual harassment or assault at the transit agency. After participating in the Commonwealth Court’s mediation program, SEPTA agreed to provide relevant records to WHYY.

Filings:

2022-01-21: Office of Open Records final determination

2022-02-18: Agency petition for review

2022-03-25: Requester entry of appearance