OPRA’s Deadlines are Relaxed During States of Emergency

On March 20, 2020, Governor Murphy signed a series of coronavirus-related bills into law. Among them was A3849, which modifies the deadline by which public agencies must respond to an OPRA request during an emergency.

Under normal circumstances, a public agency must respond to an OPRA request as soon as possible and no later than seven business days from the date of the request. The amendment provides that:

During a period declared pursuant to the laws of this State as a state of emergency, public health emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, the deadlines by which to respond to a request for, or grant or deny access to, a government record under paragraph (1) of this subsection or subsection e. of this section shall not apply, provided, however, that the custodian of a government record shall make a reasonable effort, as the circumstances permit, to respond to a request for access to a government record within seven business days or as soon as possible thereafter.

In other words, where there is declared emergency, a public agency need not respond during seven business days. Instead, it must only make a “reasonable effort” to respond within seven business days or as soon as it is able to do so.

Those who frequently file OPRA requests know that agencies already frequently fail to comply with OPRA’s deadlines. We have written about about agencies taking multiple extensions before and and we have even sued and obtained rulings finding that certain agencies have engaged in a “pattern and practice” of violating OPRA’s statutory time frames. Frankly, many wonder why this bill was necessary in light of the fact that agencies already routinely take extensions.

In our minds, though, this new bill evidences a very clear legislative intent that agencies should always comply with OPRA’s statutory seven-day deadline and that any “reasonableness” arguments for a delay should be rejected unless there is a declared emergency. We hope the courts and GRC will agree and put an end to agencies automatically granting themselves endless extensions.

To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

New Jersey Legislature Permits Electronic Public Meetings During COVID-19 Emergency

Update: Governor Murphy signed this bill into law on March 20, 2020. Many public agencies are already conducting electronic meetings.

The New Jersey Legislature is currently considering numerous bills in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. One bill is A3850, which passed in the Assembly on March 16, 2020, and will likely also pass in the Senate very soon. A3850 amends a public body’s obligations under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) during a state of emergency. Because this is Sunshine Week and transparency is very important during a crisis, we decided to devote a blog to this pending bill.

Public Bodies May Conduct Electronic Meetings

The amended law would provide that during a state of emergency, public health emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, a public body may perform any of the following by “means of communication or other electronic equipment:”

  1.            conduct a meeting and public business at that meeting,
  2.            cause a meeting to be open to the public,
  3.            vote, or
  4.            receive public comment.

Conducting any of those activities electronically during a statement of emergency will not be considered a violation of OPMA.

The bill does not provide a definition for “means of communication or other electronic equipment.”  Most public agencies will likely utilize video conferencing programs that permit the public to view a public meeting and participate in the public comment section in real time during the meeting. Those agencies will likely also accept public comments by email or phone for those who do not have such technology.

Public Bodies May Give Electronic Notice of Meetings

The bill also allows for electronic notice of public meetings at least 48 hours in advance of a meeting, giving the time, date, location and, to the extent known, the agenda of any regular, special or rescheduled meeting. The notice must also accurately state whether any formal action may or may not be taken at such a meeting. Importantly, to the extent practicable, a public body providing only electronic notice of a meeting pursuant to the new law shall limit public business discussed or effectuated at the meeting to matters necessary for the continuing operation of government and which relate to the applicable emergency declaration.

We will provide an update when this bill is signed into law.

 

To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

Accessing Personnel Records

OPRA’s personnel records exemption, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, renders most personnel records generally exempt from access under OPRA. The exemption contains three exceptions, however.

Exception 1

The first exception provides that:

“an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record.”

This provision obviously means that requests for an employee’s individual paystub or an agency’s weekly, monthly, or year-end payroll reports are available. Additionally, an agency must disclose each employee’s date of hire, title, position, salary, and date of separation. All of this information is important to know, as payroll is often one of the biggest expenditure in most agency budgets.

Within the next year, we should see resolution on what the phrase “date of separation and the reason therefor” means because the Supreme Court has granted certification in a case that asks the “name” of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” due to racially offensive behavior.  We believe this provision permits the public to learn about employees who engage in misconduct. For more information about that case and the issue the Supreme Court will be deciding, please read our prior blog.

Exception 2

The second exception provides that:

“personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible when required to be disclosed by another law, when disclosure is essential to the performance of official duties of a person duly authorized by this State or the United States, or when authorized by an individual in interest.”

This exception has been largely un-litigated and thus the courts have still not defined the scope of this exception. In McGee v. Twp. of E. Amwell, 416 N.J. Super. 602 (App. Div. 2010), the Appellate Division held that emails about an employee were “personnel records” even though they were not filed in a personnel folder and that Exception 2 would permit the employee to request them because she would be an “individual in interest” who could authorize the release. Other courts have ruled similarly—employees can request their own personnel records, which includes emails that discuss their performance.

Exception 3:

The third exception provides that:

data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record.

In Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581 (2011), the Supreme Court held that this exception does not authorize disclosure of all records that “evidence an employee’s educational background or even that evidence an employee’s participation in educational pursuits generally.”  Rather, the Court held that the exception makes available only records “that would demonstrate that a government employee lacked a required credential and therefore failed to meet the minimum qualifications for the position.”

In other words, if there is a certain training certificate, license, or degree that must be obtained in order to hold a government position (or to receive a promotion), then the public is entitled to access documents that prove whether or not the employee meets those requirements. Thus, because all police officers in New Jersey are required to take use of force trainings, the public is entitled to obtain documents proving those courses were taken. But, if an officer takes an optional course those records are not subject to OPRA, even if the agency paid for the training. (You can, of course, request a copy of the invoice or other financial documents that prove how much was spent).

 

To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

It’s Sunshine Week!

Sunshine Week, which runs from March 15 to March 21, 2020, is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. There are many ways that you can get involved–from filing OPRA requests, to writing a letter to the editor, to attending a public meeting. On this blog, we will write several times this week about transparency topics and success we have had recently shedding light on New Jersey government!

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To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.

New Jersey Appellate Division Rules in Favor of Releasing Use of Force Reports Involving Juvenile Subjects of Force, Citing Lyndhurst in Support of Decision

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin received a successful result in a decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division in Digital First Media d/b/a The Trentonian v. Ewing Township, Griffin argued the matter on May 22, 2019 and on November 21, 2019. The decision was issued on February 19, 2020.

In March 2018, Griffin filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) lawsuit on behalf of the Trentonian newspaper, seeking to compel the production of Use Of Force Reports (UFRs) relating to the alleged use of force by Ewing police officers against a sixteen-year-old suspect. Ewing Township had denied access on the basis that the records “pertained to a juvenile charged as a delinquent,” and were therefore available only by application to the Family Part pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-60. Finding that the rule and statute preserving a juvenile’s anonymity barred disclosure under OPRA, the Law Division judge dismissed the complaint on July 18, 2018.

The Appellate Division today reversed that dismissal, concluding that when police employ force against minors, redaction of his or her name on the UFR satisfies both the public’s right to access important information regarding police conduct and a juvenile’s right to privacy.

In response to the decision, Griffin stated, “Law enforcement officers have the authority to use force against individuals when it is justified, but with that great power comes a corresponding need for transparency. When police use force against children, the public’s need and desire for transparency is even greater. Today’s decision ensures that the public has access to all Use of Force Reports, not just those involving adults.”

Several amici curiae supported the Trentonian’s argument that redacted UFRs do not pertain to juveniles, but rather to police officers and their conduct, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 22 other Media Organizations, and the Attorney General of New Jersey. Amici agreed that public access to UFRs relating to the use of force against juveniles will better serve the public by providing a measure of clarity and oversight in this important arena.
In its ruling today accepting the Trentonian’s arguments, the court cited the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Twp. of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), a landmark case that granted access via OPRA and common law to police records relating to a high-speed police chase and the fatal use of force on a black, male suspect, documents that the State had for more than two years refused to release.

Lyndhurst, which also was litigated by Griffin and Pashman Stein partner Sam Samaro, set a precedent about public access to Use of Force Reports, dash cam footage, and the identity of officers who use force. The case received national attention, as reporters applauded the affirmation of government transparency as a fundamental principle that trumps a police agency’s interest in keeping videos and reports secret.

As to the Lyndhurst decision, Griffin has said, “In New Jersey, police officers are required to complete Use of Force Reports any time they use any amount of force against a suspect, whether it is twisting someone’s arm, using leg or wrist strikes, or using deadly force, which is any time a weapon is fired. The State sought to shield Use of Force Reports from the public permanently and keep the public from learning the identities of officers who use deadly force against citizens.

Thankfully the Supreme Court made that information public.”
Griffin added today, “We continue to litigate for information on police conduct, for access to body camera footage and other information about police-involved shootings and uses of force.”

Michael S. Stein, chair and managing partner of Pashman Stein, said, “Today’s decision is a testament to the significance of the Lyndhurst case and to the need for meaningful access to law enforcement records. At Pashman Stein, we are committed to taking on these high impact public interest cases, and to use advocacy to advance civil rights and government transparency.”

John Berry, Editor of the Trentonian, said, “This seems like a battle we shouldn’t have had to fight, but I’m glad the courts eventually agreed that the public should have access to public records. Hopefully this decision will help all publications get access to records that will help us increase accountability and transparency. That’s always our main concern when reporting on police or elected officials, the juvenile’s arrest was of secondary importance to making sure the public knows what government agencies are up to. Luckily we have great lawyers like CJ Griffin and the team at Pashman Stein and Bruce Rosen and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press out there defending the access to information that makes it possible for us to do our jobs and inform the public.”

Press Coverage:
The Trentonian wins OPRA lawsuit appeal against Ewing Township, holds cops accountable statewide | The Trentonian | February 19, 2020

2019 Year-End Summary

Happy 2020! This year, we anticipate the release of very important decisions by the Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court on police body camera footage, use of force reports involving juveniles, internal affairs records, and the names of employees who are fired for misconduct. We’ll keep you posted as these decisions come in.

In the meantime, we reflect upon another great year working alongside journalists, non-profit organizations, and individuals to make New Jersey more transparent!

2019 Successes by CJ Griffin and Pashman Stein Walder Hayden:

  • Our petition for certification was granted in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police, which means we’ll be arguing before the Supreme Court later this year regarding why OPRA requires disclosure of the name of a trooper who separated from employment because he or she engaged in “racially offensive” behavior.
  • We launched the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden so that we can continue to tackle government transparency issues, including increasing our pro bono appellate advocacy work in OPRA and OPMA cases.
  • In part due to our OPRA work, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden won the Appellate Department of the Year Award by the New Jersey Law Journal for the second year in a row.
  • A trial court imposed $1,000 willful violation penalties upon a mayor and clerk in The Record v. Borough of Englewood Cliffs. There have only been a handful of times where these willful violation penalties have been imposed, but the threat of the penalties (which must be paid personally by the employees, not the agency) dissuade agencies from blatantly violating the statute.
  • We convinced a second court that an elected official’s Facebook page was subject to OPRA in Wronko v. Borough of Carteret.
  • CJ Griffin published an article in New Jersey Lawyer about access to social media accounts in OPRA.
  • We successfully fought back against an agency that tried to impose a $200 service charge for capturing a few screenshots in Wronko v. North Arlington.
  • We represented The Record in a year-long battle for records relating to a deadly virus outbreak at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation. The Columbia Journalism Review wrote about it. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
  • We sued Raritan Township for records relating to a DUI arrest of a County Freeholder.

For more information, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

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Access Begins With A Valid OPRA Request

Each month, we receive dozens of inquiries from people who are upset that their OPRA requests were denied. The most frequent basis for denial is that the request is invalid as written. Although there are records custodians who will happily work with the requestor to fulfill a less-than-perfect request, other custodians will quickly deny any request that does not strictly comply with OPRA’s requirements.  A valid OPRA request is thus the critical first step to obtaining public records and it is important to draft a request that follows some basic guidelines.

Guideline 1:  Do not ask questions in an OPRA request. Although people usually file OPRA requests because they have questions about some public issue, an agency has no obligation to answer those questions. An agency’s only obligation under OPRA is to produce non-exempt public records. Although elected public officials may answer questions via email or at a public meeting, an OPRA request must stick to requesting documents.

Guideline 2: Provide a reasonable timeframe. Public agencies are permitted to impose special service charges where a request requires an “extraordinary” amount of time to fulfill. Requestors must be mindful of how many documents will be responsive to the request and keep the timeframe relatively narrow.

Guideline 3: Seek identifiable records. A valid OPRA request seeks identifiable documents. A request that seeks “any and all records relating to the town’s animal control services” is overbroad because it leaves the custodian not knowing what the requestor wants. Instead, requestors must identify specific, such as “I seek the following records relating to the town’s animal control services: shared services agreements for 2018, the health inspection report for the animal shelter for 2018, and all settlement agreements involving the animal shelter for 2018-2019.”

Tip: There are several ways to learn about what types of records might exist:

  1. Look for statutes, regulations and ordinances on the topic. Many government operations must comply with specific provisions of law. Animal control, for example, is highly-regulated and there are state statutes and regulations that require animal shelters to maintain certain paperwork. Looking at the statutes and regulations will help identify some records that might exist.
  2. Look at records retention schedules. All agencies must comply with the State’s records retention laws. Although the records retention schedules do not list every record that must be maintained, they provide some information regarding the types of documents an agency might possess.
  3. Request agency policies. An agency’s written policies, standard operating procedures, or operating handbooks might provide information regarding the types of written reports employees are required to generate or the types of records the agency must keep.
  4. Ask the agency. Believe it or not, many government employees will happily help a requestor identify what record exists if they know what type of information the requestor is seeking.

Guideline 4State the preferred format and method of delivery. A request should indicate if the requestor wants the records to be sent to them via email for free or if they want to receive hard copies, which cost 5 cents per page. The request should indicate the preferred format, such as an Excel file or a PDF. Stating these preferences up front in the OPRA request avoids confusion.

Following these general guidelines will help requestors overcome the first hurdle and send the records custodian on the hunt for responsive government records.

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 For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

 

NJ Supreme Court grants certification in OPRA case regarding identity of State Trooper who engaged in “racially offensive” behavior

The New Jersey Supreme Court has granted an OPRA requestor’s Petition for Certification and agreed to hear an appeal in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police.

The question the Court certified is:

“Does section ten of the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, require disclosure of the name of a state trooper listed in the Office of Professional Standard’s annual report to the Legislature as having been terminated for misconduct?”

For background, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 states that personnel records are generally exempt under OPRA, but provides three exceptions to the exemption. At issue in this case is the first exception, which states that:

an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record”

Each year, the Office of Professional Standards of the New Jersey State Police issues a public report detailing major discipline that is imposed upon State Troopers.  The 2015 report disclosed the following:

Member pled guilty to acting in an unofficial capacity to the discredit of the Division while off-duty by having questionable associations, engaging in racially offensive behavior and publicly discussing police patrol procedures. The member was required to forfeit all accrued time and separate from employment with the Division.

Upon reviewing that report, the requestor filed an OPRA request asking for the Trooper’s name, title, date of separation and the reason therefor, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10. The State Police denied the request, arguing that it was exempt pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 and the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policies & Procedures.

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin sued on behalf of the requestor and argued that “date of separation and the reason therefor” meant that the public is entitled to know the real reason a particular employee separated from employment. In this case, the State Police gave the reason, but would not provide the name or date of separation, frustrating the statute’s purpose. Clearly, the public has a significant interest in knowing the identity of a Trooper who engaged in “racially offensive behavior.” Moreover, the the phrase “required to . . . separate from employment” makes it unclear whether the Trooper was fired or whether he or she was permitted to retire in good standing and move on to another law enforcement position.

Griffin argued that disclosure of the Trooper’s name was required pursuant to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in South Jersey Publishing Co. v. New Jersey Expressway Authority, 124 N.J. 478 (1991), a unanimous opinion written by retired Supreme Court Justice Gary S. Stein. In that case, it was widely rumored that the agency’s executive director was under scrutiny for misusing government credit cards.  The agency met in executive session and discussed its investigation into the matter, then worked out an agreement by which the executive director would “resign in good standing” and receive payment of his salary and fringe benefits for nearly a year after his “resignation.” OPRA did not exist at the time, but Executive Order No. 11 (EO 11) contained language essentially identical to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 and required disclosure of an employee’s “date of separation from government service and the reason therefor.”  Applying that provision of EO 11, the Court found it was insufficient for the agency to simply tell the public that there was a “resignation” or “voluntary separation,” but rather that it must disclose “the results of the [agency’s] investigation.”  The Court recognized that disclosure of such information was necessary so that the public could intelligently make an evaluation of whether the agency acted reasonably in permitting the executive director to resign in good standing with several months of salary and benefits.

Unfortunately, in this case, the trial court and Appellate Division both affirmed the State Police’s denial of access. Neither court addressed the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in South Jersey Publishing. The Supreme Court will now hear the requestor’s appeal.

The successful Petition for Certification can be found here. Amicus curiae briefs are due on December 26, 2019.

NY Times: Newspapers Should Litigate Public Records Suits

The New York Times published an great article yesterday, titled “How The Times Uses FOIA to Obtain Information The Public Has A Right To Know.” The article explains why the Times firmly believes that challenging an agency’s response to a public records request is important to transparency.

Key quote:

Although smaller newspapers usually do not have in-house counsel to litigate public records lawsuits, in New Jersey OPRA provides a fee-shifting mechanism to make it possible for to find competent counsel who will litigate denials on a contingency basis. Newspapers, journalists, and other media entities can take advantage of this fee-shifting provision to challenge denials of access without incurring any costs at all. As the Times notes, doing so greatly benefits the public and is an important part of the journalistic process.

P.S.  Remember – you only have 45 days to challenge a denial.

For more information, contact CJ Griffin.

 

Third Circuit Issues Important OPRA Decision on Legal Fees

According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, a records requestor who prevails in any proceeding shall be entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. We have written about OPRA’s fee-shifting provision before, noting that without the fee-shift most requestors would not have the funds to challenge denials of access. As a result, the state would be far less transparent.

On August 14, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an important published opinion relating to OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision.

The case, titled Golden v. New Jersey Institute for Technology, involved OPRA requests filed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden, who was seeking records from NJIT to use as research for his book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.” Many of the responsive records in NJIT’s files originated from the FBI and were purportedly subject to prohibitions on public dissemination.

The records custodian reached out to the FBI to determine how to respond to the request and the FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records “[i]n no uncertain terms.” NJIT thus denied the OPRA requests by claiming the records were exempt.  Golden sued.

After the lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court, the FBI reviewed the previously withheld records and NJIT produced thousands of pages of documents that it had formerly deemed to be exempt. Golden moved for attorney’s fees, arguing that he was a prevailing party because his lawsuit was the “catalyst” for NJIT’s release of records that were not exempt. The District Court denied the fee motion and was “persuaded by NJIT’s position that it had acted reasonably in following the FBI’s direction.”

The Third Circuit disagreed and all but stated, “If a public agency permits a third party–even if it’s the FBI–to dictate its OPRA response, then that public agency will be on the hook for attorneys’ fees if it turns out that the denial of access was unlawful.” The court made it clear that it is the custodian who has the obligation “to parse the requested records, decide whether exemptions appl[y], and withhold documents pursuant to those exemptions” and that obligation cannot be outsourced to a third party outside the agency.

Importantly, the Third Circuit flatly rejected the argument that OPRA’s fee-shifting provision contains any “reasonableness” requirement. State courts have reached the same conclusion based on the plain language of OPRA, but public agencies still make this argument to trial courts.

This decision is important because there are often times where issues of first impression are litigated and the agency was operating under good faith when it denied a request, but nonetheless was wrong as a matter of law. In such situations, the OPRA requestor is still entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. Indeed, OPRA contains a mandatory fee-shifting provision so that requestors can find competent counsel to litigate those types of cases.