Category Archives: OPRA Cases

Amazon suit continues to get coverage

The New York Times has published an article about the serious lack of transparency regarding the proposals that cities have submitted bids to Amazon for their HQ2 Headquarters. Despite the fact that the taxpayers of the winning city will be on the hook for billions of dollars in incentives, too many cities are still keeping the public in the dark about what Amazon is being offered.

The article references our lawsuit, which secured access to the City of Newark’s bid, which we published.

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Update: Court Orders Disclosure of Facebook “Blocked Users” Lists

We previously wrote about an OPRA lawsuit we filed on behalf of citizen seeking a list of users that various public officials from Glen Rock have blocked from their official Facebook accounts. Today we are happy to report that the suit was successful.

In Larkin v. Glen Rock, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled that the lists of blocked users from each of the Facebook pages in questions were “government records” that are subject to access under OPRA. In her 23-page opinion, the judge noted that there is no “one-size-fit-all” approach to determine whether a particular Facebook account falls within OPRA’s scope. Rather, she applied a “fact-sensitive review” of the Facebook pages at issue to conclude that they were indeed subject to OPRA.  Among other things, the judge noted that:

  • The mayor and each council member’s Facebook pages “clearly identified them as elected members of the Glen Rock governing body”
  • Each page was “separate and distinct from their personal, friends and family Facebook pages”
  • Each page “was used for the sole purpose of discussing matters directly pending before the Mayor and Council,” including topics such as “ordinances, resolutions, budgets, and committees on which the Mayor or council member serves.”
  • The posts on each page “shared ideas, answered questions and interacted with constituents and the public at large about the Borough’s official business”

The court also rejected Glen Rock’s argument that those who were blocked by the public officials had a right to privacy.

 

Court Issues Jail Death Records Opinion

On June 4, 2018, the Appellate Division issued an unpublished OPRA opinion titled Benedetto v Russo and Union County. While the opinion is not binding on lower courts because it is unpublished, we think it is helpful in several ways.

First, the case involves very important records: incident reports regarding suicide and suspicious deaths within a County Correctional Facility. Given the widespread coverage regarding several deaths in the Hudson County Jail recently, it is important that the public has access to information about these deaths and the conditions inside the jail.

In this case, Union County argued that the incident reports regarding jail deaths could not be disclosed because N.J.A.C. 10A:31-6.10(a)(4) exempts “[a]ny information relating to medical, psychiatric or psychological history, diagnosis, treatment or evaluation.”  Additionally, Union County argued that records relating to drug overdoses could not be disclosed pursuant to N.J.A.C. 10A:31-6.10(a)(3), which exempts a “record, which consists of any alcohol, drug or other substance abuse information, testing, assessment, evaluation, report, summary, history, recommendation or treatment.” Thus, Union County argued the incident reports were medical records and exempt pursuant to both of those regulations.

The trial court ruled that these exemptions did not apply. The Appellate Division affirmed, agreeing with the trial court that the requestor did not seek “inmate medical records,” but rather sought “incident reports.” This is an important ruling because public agencies frequently try to categorize a record as something it is not.

The second reason this case is important is because it reinforces the rule that public agencies cannot meet their burden of proving that a record is exempt simply by making factual assertions in legal briefs. Instead, public agencies must produce affidavits, certifications, or other “legally competent evidence” if it wishes to cite facts not in the record. Unsworn assertions by attorneys in a brief are simply not evidential.

Too often in an OPRA case, a public agency will produce no evidence whatsoever and will ask the trial court to accept what was argued in a brief or to make a ruling based on assumptions. This case confirmed that is not acceptable.

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Important Ruling on OPRA’s Privacy Provision

CJ Griffin of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden Submitted Amicus Curiae
Brief on Behalf of Non-profit Organization
in Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office

Hackensack, NJ (May 23, 2018) – The Supreme Court of New Jersey has issued its opinion in Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, in which Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government, a non-profit organization. The Court’s decision today provides important guidance to lower courts on how to apply the Open Public Records Act’s privacy provision.

The case involved an OPRA request by an activist seeking the names and addresses of individuals who had purchased sports memorabilia from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (“BCPO”) during a public auction. The auction received considerable news attention.

The trial court ruled that the names and addresses of the successful bidders were disclosable under OPRA, but the Appellate Division reversed. It found that the bidders had a reasonable expectation that their names and addresses would remain confidential. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that “the sale of government property at a public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for transparency.”

Griffin, who also participated in oral argument before the Supreme Court, argued that there is no reasonable expectation that your identity will remain private when you engage in financial transactions with the government and that home addresses are generally not entitled to any level of protection. According to Griffin, this case was just one example of how lower courts have over-applied OPRA’s privacy provision.

“Today’s decision is important not only because the requestor will be able to learn about who purchased government property, but also because the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that OPRA’s privacy provision should be applied only in the unique cases where there is truly a legitimate privacy interest at stake,” said Griffin.

In 2009, the Supreme Court issued Burnett v. County of Bergen, its first opinion analyzing OPRA’s privacy provision. In Burnett, the Court was faced with a request that sought access to millions of records which contained names, addresses, and social security numbers. The Court held that where a citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy, lower courts must apply a 7-factor balancing test that allows a requestor to gain access to records only if his or her interest outweighs the privacy interest. According to Griffin, Burnett has been over-applied to instances where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Today’s decision should correct that practice; the Court held that courts should apply the Burnett factors “only where a party first presents a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”

“The lower courts have been applying the Burnett balancing test any time an agency claims privacy as a defense, no matter how frivolous the privacy claim is. This practice has engrafted an interest requirement into OPRA where one should not exist,” said Griffin. “Today’s decision is exactly what we wanted from the Court and will hopefully cause lower courts to restrain from applying a balancing test where one is unnecessary.”

Today’s decision also makes it clear that there is generally no privacy interest in a home address. The lower courts have been split on this issue, with some appellate panels ruling that home addresses are exempt and others ruling that home addresses are accessible. The Government Records Council, an administrative agency tasked with adjudicating denials of access, has generally found that home addresses are exempt.

“Public access to home addresses is important,” said Griffin. “For example, New Jersey has residency requirements for government employees and public officials. If home addresses are redacted from records, the public cannot verify that these residency requirements are actually satisfied.”

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

About Pashman Stein Walder Hayden

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden is a full-service mid-size business law firm offering a wide range of corporate and personal legal services. Headquartered in Hackensack, New Jersey with an office in Red Bank, New Jersey, the firm serves a diverse client base including regional Fortune 500 companies, emerging growth entities, and individuals, as well as out-of-state corporate counsel, law firms and individuals with interests in the New York metropolitan region. For more information, please visit www.pashmanstein.com. The firm also publishes an OPRA blog at www.njopra.com.

Are Survey Results Subject to OPRA?

Government agencies often distribute surveys to the public regarding various issues of public concern. Are the completed surveys subject to public access under OPRA? We think so and a court is being asked to decide.

Recently, we learned of an OPRA lawsuit filed by a requestor who seeks the results of a survey that was sent to residents of the Borough of Saddle River. The survey, which was sent by a local veterinarian who serves on the Borough’s Non-Lethal Deer Population Control Committee, asked residents whether they would allow access to their property to carry out a non-lethal deer management plan. When the requestor filed an OPRA request for the survey results, Saddle River denied the request, claiming that the results were ““inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative or deliberative material.”  We think the Saddle River got it wrong.

The deliberative process privilege applies only to inter-agency and intra-agency communications. The privilege is designed to keep internal policy-making documents confidential. Only internal documents (or documents between one government agency and another) that weigh one policy option over another; that make recommendations; or that offer opinions and advice fall within the privilege. Surveys that are completed by the general public are simply not “inter-agency” or “intra-agency” documents and thus the privilege cannot apply.

There may be times when OPRA’s privacy provision (or some other exemption) may apply to allow some information within a survey to be redacted, however. For example, we litigated Flom v. Allendale Board of Education, Docket No. BER-L-9208-15 (Law Div. Jan 7, 2016), where the requestor sought access to surveys that parents completed regarding their level of satisfaction with the district’s special education program. While the survey was intended to be completed anonymously, some parents put personal identifying information about their children on the forms. The court granted access to the survey results, but permitted the district to redact any information from the survey forms that would identify any student since students are entitled to heightened privacy.

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

Newark Releases Its Amazon HQ2 Proposal

We previously blogged about an OPRA lawsuit we filed on behalf of an activist seeking access to Newark’s Amazon HQ2 proposal. We are happy to announce that Newark has now released its proposal to our client.

Newark’s proposal is titled, “Yes, Newark.” As evidenced by the privilege log it attached to the proposal, Newark redacted approximately 6 pages from its 200+ page proposal. These pages contained the financial incentives that Newark is offering to Amazon. All other information has been disclosed. We consider this a significant transparency victory.

“I strongly believe in open government. The people of New Jersey, especially Newark residents, deserve to know what their government is doing,” said Plaintiff Steven Wronko, a transparency advocate.

“Other finalist cities put their proposals online as part of their PR campaigns to win Amazon over. The citizens of those other finalist cities got to be part of the process and see how their cities were being promoted. That builds pride and buy-in from residents. The people of Newark were completely excluded, but we are happy that they can now be part of the process,” said CJ Griffin, who represented Mr. Wronko.

Among other things, the proposal highlights Newark’s diversity, technology infrastructure, and transportation systems. It includes more than 50 pages of letters of recommendations and details the proposed locations within the city for the headquarters:Locations

 

The full proposal may be downloaded here:

Proposal Part 1
Proposal Part 2
Proposal Part 3

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

Video

Lawsuit for Facebook “Blocked” Lists

It’s a hot button topic: are government officials creating government records that are subject to OPRA when they utilize social media? A judge will soon decide.

CJ Griffin was recently interviewed by Fios 1 News television regarding a lawsuit she filed on behalf of a requestor seeking a list of users that various government officials have blocked from their official Facebook accounts.

The Record also covered the lawsuit.

We think the answer is obvious: if a government official conducts official government business on a social media account (such as updating constituents on official matters), than those accounts are government records and are subject to access under OPRA.

A “block” list is available on both Twitter and Faceook. Sample request language:

“Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the list of blocked users from the Facebook or Twitter account of _________. The URL of that account is _______________.”

An Appellate Division Win

Today, PSWH secured an appellate victory for two long-term firm clients, Richard Rivera and Collene Wronko.

The case involved OPRA requests for records from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) which related to an incident where police officers shot and killed a man outside his home in Old Bridge. Both Mr. Rivera and Ms. Wronko sought access to the 9-1-1 call of the incident, as well as other police records, such as CAD reports and Standard Operating Procedures. Their requests were denied.

After lawsuits were filed, MCPO eventually released a redacted version of the 9-1-1 call. The judge upheld those redactions, ruling that those portions of the call raised serious privacy concerns. The judge also ordered MCPO to release CAD reports and Standard Operating Procedures, but permitted redactions to any exempt material. Despite the fact that both Ms. Wronko and Mr. Rivera got exactly the relief they were seeking in their lawsuits (lawfully redacted records), MCPO insisted that they were not entitled to full reimbursement of their fees.  Judge Francis disagreed and found that both requestors were fully prevailing parties and awarded approximately $22,000 in fees and costs.

MCPO appealed, again arguing that the requestors were only “partially” prevailing parties since they received only redacted records. The Appellate Division affirmed Judge Francis’ decision, describing MCPO’s arguments as “factually inaccurate and lack[ing] merit.”

The MCPO lost two other appeals involving media companies who had requested the same 9-1-1 call, bringing the total cost for denying access to the 9-1-1 call to over $130,000.  Because MCPO lost its appeals, the requestors will be entitled to additional fees for the appellate work.

A copy of the decision may be found here.

Media Coverage:

Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office to Pay $20k in OPRA Case,” MyCentralNewJersey.com (Mar. 20, 2018).

Middlesex Prosecutor Again Loses on OPRA Fees Issue,” N.J. Law Journal (Mar. 20, 2018).

A Sunshine Week Win on Payroll Records

Today, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden secured a victory for our client, Jennifer Coombs, in an OPRA case against the Borough of Westwood.

Ms. Coombs had requested payroll records from Westwood for all employees working for the Borough in 2017.  Westwood responded to Ms. Coombs’ request by providing a payroll report, but redacting the names of numerous employees from it. Westwood stated that the redacted names were of minor employees who worked in the summer recreation program and that they were entitled to privacy.  After Ms. Coombs objected, Westwood released a new version of the report, but included only initials instead of names for all employees under the age of 18.  Ms. Coombs filed suit and Westwood opposed, insisting that OPRA’s privacy provision permitted non-disclosure of the names.

Today, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled in Ms. Coombs’ favor. The judge noted that N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 provides that notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, a government employee’s “name, title, position, salary, payroll record” and other enumerated information is accessible under OPRA. Thus, the judge ordered disclosure of the payroll records without redactions to the names of the minor employees, ruling that OPRA’s privacy provision was not applicable and that government employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy over their name and salary information.

“The language of the statute could not be any clearer,” said PSWH Partner CJ Griffin, who represented Ms. Coombs. “While most personnel records are exempt from access, the Legislature has declared that the public is always entitled to basic information about government employees, including their names and salaries. To rule that the identities of certain categories of employees could remain secret would permit unchecked nepotism or corruption to occur.”

Westwood has until March 20, 2018 to produce the payroll records. Judge Mizdol also ruled that Ms. Coombs’ is entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees for prevailing in the suit.

Click here for a copy of the decision.

For questions or comments, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-270-4930 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

Exception 2 to OPRA’s Personnel Records Exemption

Last week we discussed Exception 1 to OPRA’s personnel records exemption, which permits you to file an OPRA request for a public employee’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 week, we explore Exception 2.

Exception 2 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, 616, 7 A.3d 785, 793 (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.

Regarding the phrase, “personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible when required to be disclosed by another law,” we will explore this portion of Exception 2 next week when we explore Exception 3 because the two exceptions work closely together in some instances.

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