As we have recently written, agencies currently do not have to comply with OPRA’s 7-day deadline due to COVID-19. There is no such deadline relaxation for requestors to file OPRA lawsuits, however. Although there were prior orders by the Supreme Court that tolled such deadlines in March and April, those orders have now expired. Therefore, a person who receives a denial from a public agency must act very quickly. An OPRA suit must be filed within 45 calendar days from the date of the denial.
What should you do if an agency denies your request or otherwise violates OPRA?
The best course of action is to immediately speak to an OPRA attorney, who can review your denial and file a lawsuit on your behalf in Superior Court. Importantly, OPRA contains a fee-shifting provision that requires a public agency to pay a requestor’s legal fees when they prevail in court. This allows attorneys to represent you on a contingency basis, meaning there is no charge to you. The overwhelming majority of OPRA cases are handled with this fee-arrangement.
Typically, most OPRA lawsuits are resolved in Superior Court within 4-10 weeks either through settlement or a court order. This process is much faster than filing a complaint in the Government Records Council (GRC). Although the GRC is a free process, decisions are often not issued for two to three years. Therefore, we always recommend a Superior Court lawsuit.
Again, a requestor only has 45 calendar days to file an OPRA lawsuit. Given that it takes an attorney time to draft the lawsuit, it is best to act immediately after receiving a denial.
For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact CJ Griffin at email@example.com or 201-488-8200.
As we previously wrote on this blog, the Legislature amended OPRA in mid-March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now and in the future, during a public health emergency, state of emergency, or state of local disaster emergency, a public agency no longer needs to respond to an OPRA request within seven business days. Instead, an agency must only 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.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(i)(2).
Journalists Expose Transparency Issues
The COVID-19 pandemic has become a roadblock for the news media and those who seek information from the government. Reporters from NorthJersey.com, the Star Ledger, and the Associated Press collaborated and published three news stories today reporting about the serious lack of transparency in New Jersey during COVID-19. The articles discuss not only the State’s over-use of a confidentiality provision in the Emergency Health Powers Act to keep reporters from gaining important information about the State’s response to COVID-19, but also the fact that some counties and municipalities have essentially shut down their OPRA responses altogether. Other agencies are taking lengthy extensions, making it hard for reporters to report about local news. As NorthJersey.com wrote in its article:
Response to New Jersey’s amended law has been mixed, and some places continue to provide records in seven days. Others, like Jersey City, tell people not to expect a response at all.
“Due to the active state of emergency in relation to COVID-19, the City of Jersey City will not be able to respond to OPRA requests within seven (7) business days,” the city’s website says. “The City appreciates your patience during this difficult time.”
. . .
Dozens of government bodies from Hawthorne to Wildwood Crest have sought extensions and referenced or cited the pandemic as a reason, according to data provided by OPRAmachine, a website that helps residents submit record requests and tracks and analyzes the responses from public officials.
Delays range from a few days to weeks, and often cite closed municipal buildings and lack of staff. The website provides just a snapshot of the response, because most records requests across the state aren’t publicly tracked.
“This is very troublesome and a crisis unto itself,” said Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin. “We know from experience that secrecy inevitably leads to corruption, misconduct, waste and abuse. OPRA was enacted to permit the public to keep a watchful eye on government, but right now it can’t perform that function in many municipalities across this state.”
Today’s reporting follows an earlier article by New Brunswick Today, which also expressed concern about the State’s rush to amend OPRA and pointed out that public agencies have a long tradition of violating OPRA’s statutory deadlines in the past:
Advocates for transparency found the altered OPRA law confusing, given that records clerks often respond to requests within the seven business days only to make a request of their own: for an extension for more time to put together a substantive response.
Many government agencies have been known to play games with those who request records, asking for extension after extension, only to come back with a final decision that the request was improper or that the records cannot be released. Still others can’t seem to meet their own self-imposed timelines, and need to be reminded repeatedly about outstanding requests.
Guidance from the GRC
Recently, the Government Records Council took the extraordinary step of issuing a “Special Statement” on the amendment to OPRA, providing guidance on how it will determine whether an agency’s response is reasonable when receives denial of access complaints:
Please note that any dispute over extensions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis because OPRA does not include a limitation on requesting extensions. However, the GRC’s analysis of this issue has included recognition of “extenuating circumstances.” Those circumstances would include, but not be limited to, retrieval of records that are in storage or archived (especially if at a remote storage facility), conversion of records to another medium to accommodate the requestor, emergency closure of the public agency, or the public agency’s need to reallocate resources to a higher priority due to force majeure.
In closing, the GRC stresses that custodians within agencies operating under normal business hours during an emergency, even if closed to the public or working off-site, are obligated to respond to OPRA requests upon receipt in due course to the extent possible. Additionally, custodians should proactively advise the public (by website notification and/or other methods) if the method of transmission for OPRA requests has changed or been limited due to a state of emergency. Similarly, members of the public wishing to submit OPRA requests should contact the applicable public agency for updates on any limitations or disruptions affecting the OPRA process during a state of emergency.
Courts are, of course, free to disregard the GRC’s guidance and they have done so before. Nonetheless, the GRC’s Special Statement makes it clear that agencies that are open for business, even if working remotely, cannot simply ignore OPRA requests and must act reasonably to try to respond to them. It may be reasonable to request a extension for records that exist only in paper copy or that are locked away in storage somewhere, but some agencies are taking lengthy extensions even for electronic records that are easily retrievable.
For information about this article or public records issues, contact CJ Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 201-488-8200.
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!
To contact us about this blog post or discuss an OPRA denial, email email@example.com or visit the “contact us” tab above.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 4: State 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.
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin has published an article in the April 2019 issue of New Jersey Lawyer magazine, titled “The Legal Implications of Governmental Social Media Use.” A full copy of the article can be viewed here:
Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.
A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software. The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.
Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:
Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”
Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request, provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”
We filed the first lawsuit of its kind in NJ seeking access to records within Facebook accounts held by public officials and we won.
We made a new relationship with Reclaim The Records and helped them gain access to New Jersey’s Death Index, which they used to create an awesome website for use by genealogists, historians, researchers, and journalists.
“There’s hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, of tax dollars, at stake,” said CJ Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who argued the case. “That’s taxpayer money. When you give tax breaks, that impacts other people, so the public has a right to know.”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.
What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?
The best course of action is to immediatelyspeak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court. Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:
You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, who will likely agree to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief.
A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.
Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.
Every year, transparency warrior Senator Loretta Weinberg introduces a bill which would modernize and improve OPRA. This year’s bill is S107. Given that Democrats now control the Senate, Assembly, and Governor’s Office, we are hopeful that the bill has a chance of passing.
While the bill overwhelmingly improves OPRA, through a series of blogs we will highlight how some small provisions of the bill that seem non-controversial can actually cause some major problems for requestors.
First topic? Copying costs.
Currently, agencies cannot charge a copying charge to send requestors PDFs of documents. One creative way that agencies try to stall access to records is to think of a way to charge for them. Sadly, S107 will make such conduct perfectly legal.
S107 amends N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(b) so that “a public agency may charge the fee for each copy made in the process of responding to a government record request made during the redaction process.” What this means is that if an agency has to print a copy of a record to redact it, it can charge for that copy even if it ends up scanning the record to the requestor in a PDF.
John Doe files an OPRA request for a copy of an employee’s one-page pay stub. The Custodian is obligated to redact the employee’s social security number from that document, so she prints a copy of it and redacts it. S107 allows her to charge 5 cents for that record. She emails John Doe and tells him that he has to pay 5 cents before she will email the pay stub to him and that he can either mail in a check or come pay by check at the clerk’s office.
John Doe now has to find his checkbook, write a check for a measly 5 cents, pay 49 cents for a sttamp, and wait 1-3 business days for it to arrive and the Custodian to email the pay stub to him. Or, he can take time off work to go drop off a check during the Custodian’s business hours. That’s an awfully big hurdle to receive a pay stub! It’s not the cost is too much, but the hassle of having to arrange to pay the fee discourages and delays access. But, S107 permits it.