Public vs. private interests at play in Allegheny County judge’s ruling on access to online docket
An Allegheny County judge’s decision to remove a Downtown real estate broker’s civil court records from an online docket was improper and raises constitutional issues, a public law expert said.
Lawyers familiar with the legal database under county control said such requests are often granted and could be legitimate under the right circumstances.
The case highlights a discrepancy in access to records: The county’s electronic docket is not complete, restricting access to some information to those who physically appear in the Downtown records office.
At issue is the constitutional requirement that courts be open and accessible, offset by citizens’ personal unease with government transparency in the digital age.
Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Colville last month granted a request from Sanford Pollock, 60, of Downtown to remove 19 cases to which he was a party. All of the cases were settled or discontinued, and the window for appeal on each had closed. One was Pollock’s 1989 divorce.
Pollock, a real estate broker since 1978, was the plaintiff in 15 of the lawsuits, most of which he filed against companies that had not paid him.
The public’s easy access to that history was an embarrassment to Pollock, his lawyer said.
A search for Pollock’s name in the electronic system now shows case titles, but clicking on them directs users to a screen that says the case was removed by court order. The full record remains in paper form in the Department of Court Records in the City-County Building.
Pollock said he wanted even the case titles removed. Otherwise, the old way was better if people cannot see outcomes online.
“Now it looks like I’m trying to hide something. And I’m not,” he said.
Pollock’s lawyer, former county solicitor Michael Wojcik, said he may petition the Legislature to get full removal. Doing so, he acknowledged, could cause hundreds more people to request that their records be removed.
“This may open up the floodgates,” he said.
Removing the lawsuits from the online record undermines the Pennsylvania Constitution, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association in Harrisburg.
“You don’t have a privacy right when you involve yourself in a court case. You lose any expectation of privacy in your business or your interpersonal dealings,” she said.
Publicly available court records allow anyone to know who was involved in a case, how they were treated and the end result, Melewsky said.
“It promotes confidence in our justice system,” she said. “The electronic docket should be the same as the paper docket, so that the public is on equal footing regardless of their location or ability to access electronic records.”
But such transparency can result in personal discomfort.
Wojcik wrote in his original petition to the court: “Several persons in business and social settings have searched for Pollock’s name on the electronic docket using a smartphone and, on at least one occasion, have commented in a negative manner to Pollock concerning the results.
“This comment, and the manner and setting in which it was made, caused Pollock to become upset and embarrassed,” Wojcik wrote. “The insinuation was made that the existence of the suits somehow reflected negatively upon Pollock’s character and reputation.”
Pittsburgh lawyer Robert Mielnicki, who handles criminal and civil cases, said there are situations that call for a judge to seal records or remove them from online. But the party who wants the record sealed must show why the reason outweighs the public’s right to know, he said.
Claiming Pollock was embarrassed is “not a valid reason” to remove his cases, said Craig Staudenmaier, a Harrisburg lawyer who specializes in Right to Know Law cases and media law.
“Just because somebody doesn’t want their name found in an electronic search isn’t a reason to seal it,” Staudenmaier said. “The electronic docket is still part of the official court record and would be subject to the same rule (as the paper record).”
Melewsky said that having records available in paper form “doesn’t mean it’s less damaging.”
Colville acknowledged he “probably didn’t fully consider” other parties in the lawsuits, or interested third parties, when he signed the order removing the cases.
“Generally, one party will say we have a matter and everyone agrees it should be sealed or controlled. I say, ‘Look, if everyone is in agreement that this should be sealed, I’ll do it. But if anybody comes to me (to reconsider), then all bets are off.’ Is that a hard-and-fast rule? No. But that’s my practice,” Colville said.
Allegheny County has no policy for removing electronic records other than following a judge’s order, said Kate Barkman, director of the Department of Court Records. Paper and digital records are treated in the same way, she said.
The Administrative Office for Pennsylvania’s Courts, which maintains the electronic docket for district judges and criminal cases statewide, has a 40-page policy for records retention. According to the policy, the office removes electronic and paper records of minor crimes after three years and landlord-tenant disputes and criminal case records after seven years.
Maintaining a free online docket “offers transparency for the public and also gives law enforcement, lawyers and judges access to the same information,” said office spokeswoman Kim Bathgate.
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].