Pennsylvania’s Coroner’s Act does not give a county coroner the discretion to deny a request for immediate disclosure of someone’s manner of death, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The Coroner’s Act and the state’s Right-to-Know Law do not conflict to the point that the Coroner’s Act would trump the records request, a five-justice majority said in Hearst Television v. Norris.
The high court’s ruling is a win for media company Hearst Television and its affiliate WGAL-TV, which has four times been told it could not immediately access a Cumberland County coroner’s report on how a Shippensburg University student died in 2009.
“The RTKL and Section 1236.1(c) of the Coroner’s Act each provide immediate access to cause- and manner-of-death records,” Justice Max Baer said for the majority. “The RTKL provides the procedure for accessing those records that are available for immediate release for a fee pursuant to Section 1236.1(c).”
WGAL-TV was told by the Cumberland County coroner that, under the Coroner’s Act, he did not have to release the manner of death until 30 days after the end of the year in which a person died. The Office of Open Records, trial court and Commonwealth Court all ruled that when the RTKL is in conflict with another statute, it takes a backseat to that other statute.
WGAL-TV filed the request for the manner of death with the Cumberland County coroner just days after a 19-year-old Shippensburg University student was found dead in his apartment and the coroner began an investigation, according to the opinion.
The coroner at the time, Michael Norris, denied the request, citing the Coroner’s Act, and said the information wouldn’t become public until he filed all death reports with the prothonotary 30 days after year’s end. The requestors appealed to the Office of Open Records, which denied the appeal and agreed with the coroner. The OOR granted a petition for reconsideration, but it ultimately held to its position. The trial court and Commonwealth Court upheld that decision.
The RTKL specifically states that cause- and manner-of-death records are public records, but the RTKL states that if the law is in conflict with any other state law’s disclosure requirements, the other state law takes precedence. Section 1251 of the Coroner’s Act requires coroners to provide the prothonotary with all official records and papers from a certain year by January 30 of the following year. Section 1236.1(c) creates a process for the coroner to provide records for a fee to requestors who don’t want to wait until January 30 of the following year.
While the parties agreed Section 1236.1(c) includes cause- and manner-of-death records, the coroner and the OOR said it was within the coroner’s discretion whether he would grant a request to pay for earlier access to the records, Baer said.
In Section 1236.1(a), a coroner is expressly given discretion whether to accept requests for examinations or other professional services from other counties or people. Norris argued that discretionary language carried over to Section 1236.1(c), which allows a coroner to charge a limited fee for reports including “‘other reports and documents requested by nongovernmental agencies,’” according to Baer’s opinion.
Baer said the Commonwealth Court misapplied the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Penn Jersey Advance v. Grim. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled Section 1236.1(c) provides a “‘rapid means’” for obtaining autopsy reports. Baer said the Penn Jersey court made no mention of “a coroner discretion” in that case, but the Commonwealth Court inferred one when ruling in Hearst Television.
“There is no mention in Section 1236.1(c) of discretion. By its plain terms, therefore, and contrary to the Commonwealth Court’s holding and the dissenting opinion, Section 1236.1(c) allows the coroner to charge fees for records, but does not afford the coroner any discretion with regard to releasing such records,” Baer said.
Baer was joined in his ruling by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices Thomas G. Saylor, Debra Todd and Seamus P. McCaffery. Justice J. Michael Eakin dissented, arguing Section 1236.1(c) gives the coroner discretion concerning whether to release a manner-of-death report earlier than January 30 of the following year.
That discretion therefore causes a conflict between the Coroner’s Act and the part of the RTKL that states manner-of-death records are not exempt from disclosure, Eakin said.
“Unlike the majority, I do not read Section 1236.1(a)’s reference to discretion as solely applicable to that subsection; reading Section 1236.1 as a whole, I would conclude Subsection (a) bestows the discretion, and Subsection (c) permits a coroner to charge a fee for his discretionary release of reports prior to the time mandated in Section 1251,” Eakin said.
Gayle Sproul and Michael Berry of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz represented Hearst along with Hearst Deputy General Counsel Jonathan Donnellan. Keith Orr Brenneman of Snelbaker & Brenneman in Mechanicsburg, Pa., represented Norris. The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association filed an amicus brief on behalf of Hearst. The Pennsylvania Coroners Association and the OOR filed briefs in support of Norris.
Donnellan said the court’s decision was important because the lower court took a view of conflict that was broad enough to effectively pre-empt the RTKL in several instances. He said Hearst needed a ruling under statutory construction principles that found conflicts between two laws should be avoided at all costs and only found when the conflict is irreconcilable.
“This is an important case on a much broader scale because the Right-to-Know Law is new and this was an area of ambiguity as to its scope,” Donnellan said.
(Copies of the 24-page opinion in Hearst Television v. Norris, PICS No. 12-2002, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •