Category Archives: opra

Judge Rules IA Report of Former Police Director Who Used “Racist and Misogynistic Slurs” is Subject to OPRA; City & Prosecutor’s Office Appeal

Readers may recall from numerous news articles that in April 2019, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office (UCPO) concluded that former City of Elizabeth Police Director James Cosgrove used “racist and misogynistic” language in the workplace. The Attorney General issued a press release confirming the internal affairs investigation’s findings, calling on Cosgrove to resign, and making leadership changes at UCPO.

After UCPO denied an OPRA request for Cosgrove’s internal affairs reports, CJ Griffin filed a lawsuit on behalf of Plaintiff Richard Rivera seeking access to the reports pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access. See Richard Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Docket No. UNN-L-2954-19. Mr. Rivera is Co-Chair of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey’s Civil Rights Protection Project, a former municipal police officer, and a well-known civil rights advocate.

The City of Elizabeth intervened in the suit and vigorously defended UCPO’s denial of access alongside UCPO.

In February 2020, the Hon. James Hely, J.S.C. of the Superior Court, Union County, held that Cosgrove’s internal affairs reports were subject to access under OPRA. Judge Hely issued an order compelling the UCPO to produce the reports for in camera review so that the identities of witnesses and complainants could be protected by redaction.

Elizabeth and UCPO moved for reconsideration and a stay of the order. In an opinion denying those motions, Judge Hely wrote in part:

At the dawn of the 20th century, WEB Dubois declared “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” The Souls of Black Folks (1903).

We are now 20 years into the 21st century and racial hostility, animus, and discrimination remain a reality in these United States. Indeed, it is often an undercurrent [in] political rhetoric at the national and local level to this very day.
. . .

It seems to be the defense position that since action was taken as a result of their investigation, the public should not see the truth. Many political leaders and members of the public contend that racism and sexism are relics of the past. It is obvious from what [is] already known about the internal investigation that such denials are fantasy.

. . .

. . . I do not find that greater harm will result if I do not grant the stay. Quite the opposite. The public deserves to know the level of overt racism and/or sexism that was uncovered about the highest official or officials of the Elizabeth Police Department. To allow this matter to be further swept under the rug of public scrutiny would be to foster the illusion that racism and sexism are behind us.

UCPO and the City of Elizabeth have appealed the order, arguing that the public should not have access to the reports. The Appellate Division agreed to hear the appeal on an interlocutory basis and the case is currently pending. Oral argument was in May.

For more information about this post or OPRA in general, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 551-208-1283.

 

Using OPRA for Police Transparency in New Jersey

Transparency plays a critical role in  building trust between the police and the community. When members of the public trust the police, they are more likely to follow their commands, cooperate with criminal investigations, and even advocate for more funding for police. When police resist transparency, community trust is seriously undermined. Secrecy also makes it harder to hold police departments accountable and assure that they are complying with the law and meeting the high standards that we set for them. This is why we have been involved in dozens of cases involving police records, including landmark decisions such as North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017).

Although so many law enforcement records are sadly exempt from access under OPRA, something we hope the Legislature will fix, there are several records that are publicly accessible and that shed a light on policing and have the potential to expose misconduct or wrongdoing when it occurs.

We invite you to read our prior three-part blog series titled, “How to Monitor Police Agencies.” The series covers the following topics:

We also recommend reading the wonderful article written by Andrew Ford of the Asbury Park Press, published by ProPublica, titled “I Cover Cops as an Investigative Reporter. Here are Five Ways You Can Start Holding Your Department Accountable.”

If you have a question about this blog or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-270-4930.

 

You only have 45 days from denial to file an OPRA lawsuit

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 cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

Transparency Becomes COVID-19 Victim

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 cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

 

 

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.

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!

Sunshine-Week-Cohen--600x460

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

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.

 

Judge rules North Arlington improperly imposed service charge for Facebook records

Last week, Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol issued an opinion finding that the Borough of North Arlington unlawfully imposed a special service charge upon a records requestor who sought records from the Borough’s Facebook pages.

The OPRA request at issue in Wronko v. North Arlington sought the list of individuals who had been banned from the Borough’s Facebook page, as well as a list of any words that had been censored and the list of page administrators. In response, the Borough insisted it needed to use an outside IT consultant to capture the screenshots necessary to fulfill the request, which would cost $200 for 2 hours of time.

OPRA permits a special service charge only in limited circumstances. Specifically, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(d) provides that:

If a request is for a record: . . . requiring a substantial amount of manipulation or programming of information technology, the agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based on the cost for any extensive use of information technology, or for the labor cost of personnel providing the service, that is actually incurred by the agency or attributable to the agency for the programming, clerical, and supervisory assistance required, or both.

Otherwise, “electronic records and non-printed materials shall be provided free of charge.” N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(b)(1).

After hearing expert testimony from both parties, Judge Mizdol concluded “that production of the requested documents does not require a substantial amount of manipulation of information technology.”  The court found that capturing screenshots of the Facebook pages that contained the list of banned users and censored words “did not require any expertise in the field of information technology” and that any person with a “basic level of computer skills” would be able to fulfill the request by utilizing Facebook’s “Help” pages or a “simple Google search for ‘how to take a screenshot.'”

Importantly, the Court noted that it is imperative that agencies be able to fulfill modern day OPRA requests:

OPRA requests increasingly involve information technology in this digital age. Those hired to serve as an OPRA Records Custodian, thus, must have the requisite skills to reply to requests for government records located on such digital platforms. If a custodian does not have such skills, the municipality has the ability to rely on information technology experts or hire third party help. However, shifting costs related to same [to the requestor] requires the presence of a substantial amount of manipulation on information technology.

Unfortunately, the imposition of special service charges seems to be on the uptick. Many requestors may simply walk away from a request if the agency seeks to impose a significant fee, but it is possible to challenge the fees in court. In this case, Judge Mizdol ordered the agency to release the records without any fee and to pay the requestor’s legal fees.