United States: Supreme Court Of PA Reaffirms The Broad Scope Of The Commonwealth Court’s Declaratory Judgment Jurisdiction In Challenges To Agency Interpretations Of Statutes

Many Pennsylvania lawyers only encounter the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in its appellate guise, but the court enjoys an unusual hybrid nature, having both appellate and original jurisdiction. The court's original jurisdiction encompasses cases in which the state government is a party, though such cases can also arrive at the court as appeals from state agency decisions. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently issued a significant decision in a case that touched on both kinds of jurisdiction and, in doing so, it broadly interpreted the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction to hear cases under the Declaratory Judgments Act, 42 Pa. C.S. §§ 7531-7541, when litigants seek to challenge a state agency's interpretation of a statute.

The Recent Decision

In Commonwealth, Office of the Governor v. Donohue, No. 10 MAP 2013 (Aug. 18, 2014), the Supreme Court rejected the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records' interpretation of the time frame in the Right-to-Know Law for an agency to respond to written requests for documents. Although the statute provided that the time for responding to a request "shall not exceed five business days from the date the written request is received by the open-records officer for an agency," the OOR had interpreted the statute to require a response within five business days of when any employee of an agency received the written request.

The case originated with a citizen's challenge to the response by the Office of the Governor to his right-to-know request. Although the OOR upheld the Office of the Governor's denial of the request, it rejected the Office's interpretation of the time required to respond under the statute. The Office of the Governor appealed that ruling to the Commonwealth Court, which dismissed the appeal on the ground that the Office was not aggrieved by the OOR's ruling because the OOR ultimately agreed with the Office regarding its rejection of the right-to-know request — even though the OOR disagreed on the interpretation of the five-day requirement.

Hedging its jurisdictional bets, the Office of the Governor also filed a declaratory judgment action in the Commonwealth Court under that court's original jurisdiction. In that action, the OOR argued that a declaratory judgment was not a proper vehicle for the challenge, but the Commonwealth Court rejected this argument, as well as the OOR's interpretation of the five-day requirement in the statute.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the OOR renewed its jurisdictional argument. It contended that the Office of the Governor was required to await an actual controversy in which the OOR adjudicated the issue of the five-day response time against a state agency and ruled against the agency on the merits of the dispute, at which point the agency could take an appeal to the Commonwealth Court. The Supreme Court rejected this argument.

The court noted that there was no uncertainty as to the OOR's construction of the statute, as it had plainly staked out a position that the five-day period began to run upon receipt of a request by any agency employee. Thus, the Office of the Governor and other agencies were compelled to either follow this (allegedly wrong) interpretation of the statute or intentionally violate the statute as interpreted by the OOR. In these circumstances, the court held, "declaratory relief is appropriate in the Commonwealth Court's original jurisdiction to avert the potential 'multiplicity of duplicative lawsuits' with regard to the same issue [the Office of the Governor] raised in its declaratory judgment action."

The court also rejected the argument that exhaustion of statutory remedies — i.e., requiring the Office of the Governor to adjudicate the issue before the OOR initially — would contribute anything to the ultimate resolution of the dispute: "Given that OOR has stated its position with regard to [the statute] and defended the same on appeal to this Court, it is unlikely that awaiting formal consideration of the question in a future controversy between OOR and [the Office of the Governor] will provide further insight." In short, because "OOR has adopted an interpretation of the statute in question and stated its intention to apply that interpretation prospectively to the apparent detriment of [the Office of the Governor] (as well as other Commonwealth agencies), ... the Commonwealth Court properly exercised its original jurisdiction over OOR in this matter."

The Significance of Donohue

The Supreme Court's decision in Donohue offers litigants subject to adverse interpretations of statutes by Commonwealth agencies a vehicle for challenging those interpretations, without awaiting an actual controversy with the agency that might lead to an appeal to Commonwealth Court. Bringing a declaratory judgment action frequently offers a number of advantages over adjudicating these types of issues before a Commonwealth agency. For one, the time to get to court is much quicker, as the litigant need not await the sometimes lengthy administrative process before taking an appeal. In addition, a party that would have to change its conduct to adhere to a purportedly incorrect interpretation of a statute can challenge that interpretation without necessarily altering its conduct or, conversely, subjecting itself to the aggravation and possible bad publicity of an enforcement action by the agency.

While there may be times that a party prefers to adjudicate a dispute over an agency's interpretation of a statute through administrative proceedings initially and then take an appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the Supreme Court's decision in Donohue reaffirms that the broad scope of declaratory judgment jurisdiction in Pennsylvania can offer an alternative route to resolving such disputes.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

*** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.