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Pontarelli v. Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

January 16, 2018

Paul E. Pontarelli
v.
Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education et al.

         Providence County Superior Court Appeal. (PC 15-4450) Associate Justice Richard A. Licht.

          For Plaintiff: Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.

          For Defendants: Meghan E. Siket, Esq., Joseph D. Whelan, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Francis X. Flaherty, Justice.

         The plaintiff, Paul E. Pontarelli, appeals from a Superior Court order granting the motion to dismiss of the defendants, the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE) and Ken Wagner, in his capacity as the commissioner of RIDE. Pontarelli sought access to records in RIDE's possession pursuant to the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), G.L. 1956 chapter 2 of title 38. The catch, however, was that those purportedly public records were not related to the statutory mission of RIDE, but to the "private law practice" of one of RIDE's employees. The agency rejected Pontarelli's request, prompting him to seek declaratory relief in the Superior Court. That relief was denied, and Pontarelli timely appealed to this Court. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the order of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         On April 13, 2015, Pontarelli sent the following request for public records to RIDE:

"All records related to the private law practice of [a RIDE employee], which have been created, produced, printed, scanned, faxed, emailed, maintained or stored at or on the property of the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education or the Rhode Island Board of Education including, but not limited to, computers, copiers, servers, computer storage systems and/or networks."

         On April 21, 2015, the public information officer at RIDE denied Pontarelli's request:

"Should there be any such records maintained or stored at or on the property of the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, or the Rhode Island Board of Education, such records would not be public records under the definition of 'public records' within the Access to Public Records Act, RIGL 38-2-2(4), as such records would not be made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by this agency."

         Pontarelli appealed that denial to then-Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. He asserted that, under § 38-2-3(a), all records maintained or kept on file by a public body are public records. Nevertheless, Gist, too, rejected Pontarelli's request. She reasoned that the very section of APRA cited by Pontarelli provides that records maintained or kept on file by a public body are public records "[e]xcept as provided in § 38-2-2(4), " which defines public records as only those "made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency." Accordingly, the commissioner reasoned, the requested records pertaining to the private law practice of the RIDE employee were not subject to disclosure. Gist further informed Pontarelli that APRA "does not go so far as to state that all records maintained or stored on the property of an agency are public records"; rather, she stated, they must be maintained or stored there by the agency. Thus, Gist concluded, records that were related to the employee's private law practice "would not become public records based solely [on] the place of their storage."

         Subsequently, Gist left her position, and Wagner became the commissioner of RIDE. Also around that time, Pontarelli learned of RIDE's network policy, which provides that "[t]ransactions resulting from network usage are the property of the [s]tate and are thus subject to open records laws." The policy also advises that email messages are considered public records pursuant to APRA and that RIDE records are open to public inspection.

         Pontarelli then asked Wagner to reconsider Gist's decision of his appeal of RIDE's denial of his public-records request. Wagner did not dispute the contents of RIDE's network policy; however, he informed Pontarelli that a violation of that policy by an employee would be handled simply as a personnel matter. And Wagner, like Gist before him, notified Pontarelli that the requested records "related to the private law practice" of the RIDE employee were, by definition, not public records. Therefore, he declined to disturb the earlier denial.

         Pontarelli then filed a complaint for declaratory relief in the Superior Court. He alleged, in essence, that he had filed a public-records request with RIDE; that that request had been denied by RIDE; and that he had thereafter pursued administrative appeals by petitioning Gist, and later Wagner, for review, to no avail. Pontarelli asserted that the requested records ...


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