Monthly Archives: February 2017

Agencies May Charge Special Service Charges, But Only In Rare Cases

One question we frequently receive is whether an agency can charge a requestor an hourly rate to respond to an OPRA request.   The answer is yes, but only in specific circumstances where a requestor seeks an extraordinarily large volume of records.

N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(c) provides that:

Whenever the nature, format, manner of collation, or volume of a government record embodied in the form of printed matter to be inspected, examined, or copied pursuant to this section is such that the record cannot be reproduced by ordinary document copying equipment in ordinary business size or involves an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort to accommodate the request, the public agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplicating the record, a special service charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based upon the actual direct cost of providing the copy or copies

Our courts and the Government Records Council consider several factors in determining what constitutes an “extraordinary expenditure of time and effort.”  Specifically, they look at:

  • The volume of government records involved
  • The period of time over which the records were received by the governmental unit
  • Whether some or all of the records sought are archived
  • The amount of time required for a government employee to locate, retrieve and assemble the documents for inspection or copying, and then return them to their original storage location
  • Whether redaction is required
  • The size of the agency and number of employees available to accommodate document requests
  • The availability of information technology and copying capabilities

In other words, what may be “extraordinary” to one very small agency might be routine to larger agencies.

There are only three published judicial opinions on the issue of special service charges.  The Supreme Court permitted a special service charge where millions of microfilmed land records needed to be redacted by an outside vendor. See Burnett v. County of Bergen, 198 N.J. 408 (2008) (permitting the agency to pass along the actual cost to the requestor). The Appellate Division permitted a special service charge where deputy attorney generals spent over 55 hours reviewing and redacting 15,000 emails. Fisher v. Division of Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61, 65 (App. Div. 2008).  Finally, the Law Division permitted a special service charge where the requestor sought six-and-a-half years of legal invoices by four different law firms, which totaled thousands of redacted pages. See Courier Post v. Lenape Reg’l High Sch., 360 N.J. Super. 191, 199 (Law Div. 2002).

Generally, however, most special service decisions reside with the GRC.  Though they are not precedential in court, the decisions are instructive.  Recently, in Rozzi v. Lacey Twp. Bd. of Educ., GRC Complaint No. 2015-224 (Jan. 31, 2007), the GRC ruled that a school board could not charge a special service charge for a request where it took the agency four hours to retrieve 37 pages of records from storage. Even though the custodian certified that the requested checks were difficult to locate in numerous boxes in the agency’s storage site, the GRC held that “given the amount of time expended, just over half of a working date, in tandem with the number of responsive records (37 pages) that were not redacted, and the resources available to the school district [(a district with 3,000 students and a $60 million budget)], the evidence of record does not support that the special service charge was warranted or reasonable due to an ‘extraordinary amount of time and effort.’”

As a general rule, most GRC decisions have found no special service charge was warranted where a request took less than ten hours to fulfill, but response times above ten hours may invoke a special service charge for smaller agencies. See Diamond v. Twp. of Old Bridge, GRC Complaint No. 2003-15 (Feb. 18, 2014) (holding 4 hours of time did not justify special service charge); Carter v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-281/2013-282/2013-283 (Oct. 28, 2014) (holding no special service charge warranted for nearly roughly 8 hours of time to search for emails); Verry v. Borough of South Bound Brook, GRC Complaint No. 2010-105/2010-106. Compare Loder v. County of Passaic, GRC Complaint No. 2005-161 (Feb. 8, 2016) (permitting special service charge where it took 32 hours to review thousands of pages); Vessio v. Twp. of Barnegat, GRC Complaint No. 2006-70 (April 25, 2007)(permitting special service charge where request took 14 hours of review); Renna v. County of Union, GRC Complaint No.: 2004-134 (April 11, 2006)(permitting service charge for nearly 40 hours of time to compile records.).

Often, agencies hold the records “hostage” unless the requestor first pays the fee.  Luckily, our courts have held that paying the fee in order to gain access to the records does not mean that a requestor forfeits the right to challenge the fee in court and get a refund.

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

Yes, You May “OPRA an OPRA Request”

For years, individuals have filed OPRA requests with agencies to obtain all of the OPRA requests an agency has received during a specific timeframe.  Requestors use these records in a variety of ways, such as a) finding out how many OPRA requests an agency is handling during any specific timeframe (since agencies have no obligation to calculate that information and let the public know); b) being able to contact another member of the public who is interested in the same type of government issues; c) learning more about government by seeing what other requestors are seeking from their government.

While local governments have generally continued to comply with such requests, unfortunately in 2014 the State began denying all requests for OPRA requests (perhaps not coincidentally, when the requests began to ask for other requests about the Bridgegate scandal).  The trial court ruled against the State, but the matters were stayed.  Accordingly, since 2014, requestors have not been able to obtain copies of OPRA requests that were filed with any State agency.

Recently, however, the Appellate Division issued a published opinion and rejected the State’s appeal.  In Scheeler v. Office of the Governor, __ N.J. Super. __ (2017), the Appellate Division held that there is no blanket exemption that permits an agency to deny access to all OPRA requests that were filed with the agency.  While the Court noted that there may be circumstances where a single OPRA request might invoke a confidentiality concern (such as containing trade secrets), overwhelmingly that will not be the case.

The Court also re-affirmed its prior holdings and concluded that a request for all OPRA requests filed during a specific timeframe was valid and did not require “research.”

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

The Third Exception to OPRA’s Personnel Records Exemption

The third exception to OPRA’s personnel records exemption 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.

[N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.]

In Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581, 593 (2011), the Supreme Court has made it clear 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.”

What this means is that if there is a certain training certificate or 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 know that information.  So, a requestor could seek a copy of a Municipal Clerk’s RMC (Registered Municipal Clerk) license and continuing education certificates, N.J.S.A. 40A:9-133 requires clerks to receive an RMC certificate.  Similarly, if a requestor seeks a list of training courses that a police officer has taken, the agency must produce the list but may redact any courses that are not mandatory.

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

A4532 Will Hinder Transparency

This week, Assembly Bill A4532 passed out of the State and Local Government Committee and will likely be voted on by the Assembly at some point in the near future.  This bill will severely hinder transparency in this State in two ways.

First, A4532 creates a new exemption for “personal government records,” which are defined as records “that consists of or pertains solely to a pet or home alarm system permit, license, or registration.”  While I understand that the sponsor of the bill is concerned that businesses utilize these lists as marketing tools, these lists can be very valuable resources to members of the public.  For example, animal rights advocates routinely use lists of pet license holders to notify pet owners that the local animal shelter has health code violations or inhumane conditions.  As a result of such activism, shelters have been placed into new management or shut down altogether.  Other animal rights advocates have used the list to expose backyard breeders who do not have their pets licensed.  If these records are exempted from public access, it will be much harder for these advocates to advance their cause.

Second, as it is currently written, A4532 changes OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision so that an agency that acts in “good faith” and is “reasonable” will not have to pay fees even if the court rules in the requestor’s favor. Such a change will gut OPRA.  The mandatory fee-shifting provision is what gives OPRA “teeth” because it permits requestors to sue to gain access to records and be assured that their attorney fees will be covered.  If fees are only provided where the agency was unreasonable or acted in bad faith, then cases of first impression will not be litigated because it will be too easy for the agency to say they were “reasonable” in denying a request since they had no guidance.  Additionally, in any case where there is a conflict in legal authority (such as a GRC decision that conflicts with a court decision), the agency will try to escape fees by saying they were “reasonable” in following one instead of the other.

Simply put, without the assurance of a mandatory fee, requestors will be unable to find attorneys who will represent them on a contingency basis.  This means that cases will not be litigated and the State will be less transparent as a result.

According to John Paff, the sponsors of the bill insist that they did not intend for the fee-shifting provision to be altered as to all types of OPRA cases and only intend to change it as to “personal government records.”  The bill as written, however, simply does not say that.  Moreover, if there is a blanket exemption for “personal government records,” there is no need to change the fee-shifting provision because a requestor will never “prevail” anyway.

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