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Sheehan v. South Whitehall Township

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 2022-C-1571

Court: Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas

Clients: Daniel Sheehan, The Morning Call

Notice of Appeal Filed: July 29, 2022

Background: In April 2022, a reporter for The Morning Call submitted a request under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law seeking a settlement agreement between a former South Whitehall Township police officer and a woman who had accused the officer of sexual assault and bribery. The township denied the newspaper’s request, claiming that it was dismissed as a named party in the federal civil rights lawsuit and that the agreement — which included a confidentiality clause — was not in its possession or control.

Morning Call reporter Daniel Sheehan appealed the township’s denial to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, which handles public records appeals before they head to court. The OOR determined that because the township was dismissed from the litigation, it was unable to disclose the terms of the settlement between the remaining parties.

Sheehan and The Morning Call appealed the OOR’s determination to the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas — arguing that, because the former officer was sued in his official capacity, the settlement agreement should be made public under the state’s public records law regardless of whether or not the township remained a named party in the lawsuit. Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania, is representing Sheehan and The Morning Call in this matter.

Quote: “The Township cannot evade its obligation to provide access to records of an agreement settling claims stemming from the actions of an agent of the Township, acting in his official duty, merely by achieving the dismissal of the government agency by name on the eve of settlement,” Burke wrote in The Morning Call’s appeal filed with the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas.

Updates: On Dec. 9, 2022, Reporters Committee attorneys filed a motion to intervene in the underlying federal case — Serano v. Golden — seeking to amend the order of confidentiality. South Whitehall Township had previously argued that this confidentiality order barred the release of the settlement agreement. On May 2, 2023, the judge in the Sheehan v. South Whitehall Township case denied The Morning Call’s appeal and affirmed the final determination of the Office of Open Records, finding that the township had no obligation under the Right-to-Know Law to produce the settlement agreement.

Filings in Sheehan v. South Whitehall Township:

2022-07-05: OOR final determination

2022-08-29: Notice of appeal

2022-12-19: Morning Call brief

2023-05-02: Order

Filings in Serano v. Golden:

2022-12-09: Motion to intervene and amend order

2022-12-09: Memorandum of law in support of The Morning Call’s motion to intervene for the limited purpose of seeking amendment to the confidentiality order

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