Friday, August 17, 2012

Appeals court backs right to attorney-client privacy - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

By Michael A. Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The state's Right to Know Law and the Office of Open Records cannot supersede the right of an attorney to keep private his work for a client, the state Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday, siding with the City of Pittsburgh and against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The order overturned an Allegheny County Court ruling and vacated an Office of Open Records order, both which had found in favor of the Post-Gazette's request for documents.

The case involved an Oct. 21, 2010, Right to Know request by Post-Gazette reporter Jonathan D. Silver seeking copies of correspondence between attorneys for the estate of Curtis Mitchell, 50, of Hazelwood and city officials contained in the file of an assistant city solicitor.

The preceding day, attorneys for the estate announced that their proposed $500,000 settlement for Mr. Mitchell's death during a February 2010 snowstorm after paramedics failed to reach him had been rebuffed by the city and they were filing suit.

"Because our Supreme Court has sole jurisdiction over the practice of law, [the Right to Know Law] could not confer upon a hearing officer or the [Office of Open Records] the authority to compel the disclosure of information in an attorney's case file, including settlement negotiations," President Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote for the majority. Judges Robert Simpson and P. Kevin Bobson dissented without comment.

Judge Anne E. Covey wrote an opinion that dissented in part and concurred in part.

"While there is no dispute that a settlement agreement is a public record requiring disclosure under the RTKL, the long-standing public policy of encouraging settlements requires protecting settlement negotiations from the same disclosure requirement," she wrote.

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette or 412-263-1968.
First Published August 17, 2012 12:00 am

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