The state’s Commonwealth Court is requiring California University of Pennsylvania to pay nearly $16,000 in legal fees and penalties after the school acted in “bad faith” in its response to an open records request more than three years ago from the Observer-Reporter about a corporate donation.
The court released its decision Wednesday ordering Cal U. to pay $14,298 to the newspaper for legal fees, along with a $1,500 civil penalty for stifling a reporter’s specific requests for documents related to financial donations a construction company made to a charitable arm of the university.
“We are extremely pleased by the court’s decision, and that this costly, protracted litigation over access to public records has finally come to a close,” said Liz Rogers, executive editor of the Observer-Reporter.
The case stems from an open records request brought by former staff writer Gideon Bradshaw in August 2018 for documents showing donations made by Mt. Lebanon-based Manheim Corp. to The Foundation for Cal U.
Manheim was awarded a contract in 2009 to build the university’s new $13 million Vulcan garage, which partially collapsed on move-in day in August 2016. No one was injured, but the 6-year-old garage was closed to vehicles out of continued safety concerns. The university sued Manheim, but settled with the contractor for $3.75 million in September 2020 to pay for repairs and eventually reopen the garage.
Bradshaw requested all records involving donations from Manheim to The Foundation from 2008 through 2012, eventually showing that the company donated nearly $68,000 during the time.
The state Office of Open Records ruled in the newspaper’s favor; however, the university at first refused to release those records and went to court to argue that it had a legal basis to withhold them. After an unsuccessful appeal to the state Supreme Court in 2019, university officials said The Foundation had searched its archives and determined no records existed. The continued legal battle resulted in a Commonwealth Court precedent that records of private companies’ donations, unlike those of individuals, are subject to the state open records law.
The newspaper contended that Cal U. acted in bad faith by waiting as long as it did to check for the existence of those records. The Commonwealth Court agreed in its ruling Wednesday.
“In sum, the Court concludes that the University engaged in bad faith and frivolous conduct in denying (the newspaper’s) RTKL request without first determining whether The Foundation had potentially responsive records in its possession, in asserting its first basis for denying the request, and in litigating both bases for its denial on appeal,” according to the court’s opinion.
However, the court ruled that the university did not act in bad faith in its initial response to the original open records request, but did so when Bradshaw made more specific references in his appeals.
Washington attorney Colin Fitch represented the newspaper during the proceedings.
A university spokesman said officials just received the opinion Wednesday afternoon and were reviewing it.