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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.”

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.

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Appellate Division Rules that OPRA is not Limited to NJ Citizens

Ruling protects the right of out-of-state media to utilize OPRA

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin secured an important victory today in a consolidated Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case. The Appellate Division ruled that OPRA can be used by “any person” and is not limited only to New Jersey citizens. No other appellate court has previously addressed this issue. The Appellate Division’s decision can be viewed here.

The case, which has been approved for publication, is captioned Harry Scheeler v. Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund. The Appellate Division affirmed a decision by the Honorable Ronald E. Bookbinder, A.J.S.C., who held that OPRA was not limited only to citizens because nearly a dozen provisions of OPRA state that “any person” can request government records and “any person” can file a lawsuit to challenge an agency’s denial of access.

At the same time, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court in the two other appeals that were part of the consolidated decision: Scheeler v. City of Cape May and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law v. Atlantic City Board of Education. In those cases, an Atlantic County trial court judge ruled that despite OPRA’s repeated references to “any person,” only New Jersey citizens can utilize OPRA because OPRA’s introductory language states that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State.”

Had the Appellate Division ruled differently, out-of-state news agencies would have been precluded from filing OPRA requests in New Jersey. Even out-of-state persons who own summer homes or rental homes in New Jersey would have been precluded from filing OPRA requests, even though they clearly have an interest in doing so.

“The Appellate Division’s decision is a significant victory because allowing out-of-state requestors to utilize OPRA, whether they are individual persons or media companies, advances transparency and benefits the citizens of our State,” said Griffin. “Most of my non-media clients, including Mr. Scheeler, routinely distribute the records they obtain from public agencies to the media or otherwise publish them online so that the public can be aware of what their government is doing.”

Griffin has litigated several cases on this issue and had convinced a total of four trial court judges that OPRA did not contain a citizenship requirement. In one case, Carter v. Borough of Paramus, the OPRA requestor was a New Jersey citizen but the agency insisted that he had to provide his home address and driver’s license in order to prove his citizenship. When the requestor cited his privacy and refused to do so, the agency denied his request. Griffin took the matter to Superior Court and won.

“A citizenship requirement would put endless obstacles in the way of gaining access to public records, even for citizens,” said Griffin. “This is the only decision that makes sense and that fosters transparency.”

Griffin represented Mr. Scheeler in both cases bearing his name. PSWH Associate Suzanne M. Bradley participated in the legal briefing. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey represented the Lawyers’ Committee in the third matter.

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.

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

The GRC’s Time Problem

We have always recommended that clients challenge their OPRA denials in Superior Court. Why? Primarily because the process is significantly faster.  An action filed in Superior Court will generally be resolved within 2-4 months in most cases, unless there is an appeal. This expedited process is vital to transparency, especially for reporters who need the records to report news to the public in a timely fashion.

In contrast, we have filed 4 denial of access complaints in the GRC and the process was unbearably long.  One case took 25 months, another 22 months,  and a third took 13 months. The fourth matter is still pending 24 months later, although the GRC did issue an interim decision 19 months into the case. We do not know when a final decision will be issued. OPRA mandates that the GRC handle cases “as expeditiously as possible,” but the GRC does not seem to be living up to that mandate.

Joe Hernandez of WHYY wrote a story about the GRC’s extreme slowness called,  “Appealing a Public Records Request Denial in N.J.? Don’t Hold Your Breath.” Hernandez notes:

The GRC was supposed to be the faster, easier alternative to filing a lawsuit in state court. But a review of the council’s internal tracking system shows it has a backlog dating back to 2014, tying up some cases without a resolution for years.

The story explains that the GRC suffered considerable budget cuts and staffing shortages under the Christie Administration.  Whatever the cause for the GRC delay, we hope that this problem is remedied as too many citizens go to the GRC to file a simple complaint and end up not getting access to the records they sought for years.

 

 

Lawsuit Seeks Newark’s AmazonHQ2 Proposal

On February 20, 2018, Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin filed an OPRA lawsuit against the City of Newark on behalf of long-time client Steven Wronko.  The lawsuit seeks access to a copy of Newark’s AmazonHQ2 proposal.

For our prior press release about the suit and a copy of the complaint, click here.

On March 26, 2018, Newark moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint. In support of its motion, Newark submitted a certification by Aisha Glover, Executive Director of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (“NCEDC”), which simply stated that a) Newark is bound by a non-disclosure agreement and b) Newark would be at a competitive disadvantage if it released its proposal.   Newark’s motion brief and Glover’s certification (with the non-disclosure agreements) can be found here and here.

On April 3, 2018, Plaintiff opposed the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff’s brief can be found here and his argument is summarized as follows:

  • The non-disclosure agreement a) only applies to information that Amazon has disclosed to Newark and b) expressly states that agencies may comply with their public records laws
  • Newark has not offered any evidence regarding type of content within its proposal and why releasing that type of information would put it at a competitive disadvantage. Our courts have repeatedly held that an agency cannot overcome OPRA’s presumption of access by simply making a conclusory statement that a record is exempt or that harm will occur if a record is released.
  • Many of the details that Newark says it cannot release without putting it at a competitive disadvantage have already been released by Newark itself.  For example:
    • Newark states that the proposed site locations for Amazon HQ2 are secret, yet in December it took a group of reporters on a bus tour of those locations and even provided renderings directly from its proposal!  To see those renderings and read about the tour, check out these stories and slideshows by Real Estate NJ, ROI-NJ, and NJ.com.
    • On the tour, Newark discussed specific details of what it included in its proposal, such as touting its fiber optic infrastructure and internet speed.
    • Newark states that its incentives are top secret, but the Legislature’s $5 billion incentive package and Newark’s commitment to $2 billion in additional incentives has already been disclosed to the public.
  • Newark has not proven that its proposal cannot be released in redacted form to protect any remaining non-public information while permitting the public to see the bulk of the proposal. OPRA requires records to be redacted so that non-exempt information is released. Many of the finalist cities have taken this approach and have released their proposals with redaction to non-public information. Some finalist cities, such as Boston and Washington D.C., have even gone so far as to create entire websites as part of their pitch, which contain their proposals.  Newark, however, denied complete access to its proposal, even though it has disclosed much of the information within it to the press already.

Hearing:
The Honorable Jeffrey B. Beacham, J.S.C., will hear oral argument on Friday, April 20, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. at the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark, NJ.

 

 

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).

Appellate Division Rules Agencies Cannot Hide Behind Technology

Last week, the Appellate Division issued a published decision that is very important to transparency.  While the court’s analysis of its standard of review over GRC decisions will excite appellate attorneys, it is the more substantive portion of the court’s decision that grabbed our attention.

The case is Conley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corrections, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. Jan. 12, 2018), and it involves an OPRA request that was filed by Kevin Conley, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison.

Mr. Conley’s OPRA request sought “monthly remedy statistical reports” that were required to be produced by N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.8(a)(4) and other federal laws. He had requested these reports in the past and they were always produced, but this time the DOC responded by saying that it had adopted a new computerized database in January 2014 and the requested monthly reports “are no longer generated or available.”

Mr. Conley objected, noting that he had always gotten the reports before and that the DOC was mandated by law to produce these monthly reports. The DOC continued to deny the request, insisting that it no longer generates the reports and that it was not obligated to “create a record.”

Mr. Conley filed a complaint on his own in the Government Records Council (tip: we advise going to court instead!) and lost. The GRC accepted the DOC Custodian’s certification that it did not possess the monthly reports and ruled that it did not violate OPRA.

The Appellate Division reversed the GRC. It noted that the DOC was mandated by federal and State regulations to make the monthly reports. It held that were it to accept the DOC’s argument that the report was no longer available based on the manner by which DOC chose to store this public data, it would render “the public policy of transparency and openness the Legislature codified in [OPRA] unacceptably vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation.”

Importantly, the Court held that “[t]echnological advancements in data storage should enhance, not diminish, the public’s right to access ‘government records’ under OPRA . . . . A government agency cannot erect technological barriers to deny access to government records.”

What does this mean for OPRA requestors?  This case builds upon the Supreme Court’s recent holding in Paff v. Galloway, which held that electronically stored information is a government record that must be produced. Where an agency is obligated by law to produce a certain type of report or a specific document each month (or year) and it fails to do so because it has moved to an electronic database, it cannot avoid its obligations under OPRA. It would need to pull data from its database to produce the report/document to the requestor.

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Griffin to Give OPRA Training in River Edge

PSWH Partner CJ Griffin will be giving an OPRA training on Tuesday, January 23, 2017 at 6:30pm at the River Edge Public Library, 685 Elm ave, River Edge, NJ.

This event is free and open to the public.  Come learn about the nuts and bolts of filing an OPRA request!

This event is sponsored by Indivisible NJ 5th District, Glen Rock People Power, Ridgewood JOLT, Glen Rock after the March, Women for Progress, and Ramsey Pins!

Appellate Division Significantly Expands Student Records Exemption

It is widely accepted that student records are exempt from public access under OPRA, either under the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) or New Jersey’s Pupil Records Act (“NJPRA”). In other words, everyone accepts that students are entitled to privacy and that the public is not able to access grade cards, discipline records, and other sensitive information. However, when it comes to records that relate to an individual student but involve a significant expenditure of public funds, such as settlement agreements, most courts have permitted access to them so long as the record is redacted so that the student cannot in any way be identified.

Last week, however, the Appellate Division changed course when it issued L.R. v. Camden City Public School District. In a published decision that will be binding upon all trial courts, the Appellate Division shut down all access to any record that “relates” to an “individual student.” The public is no longer entitled to even a redacted copy of the record. Their reasoning? The NJPRA exempts “information related to an individual student” and a record still “relates” to an individual student even if it is de-identified. The Court explained its reasoning:

For example, a document reflecting a school district’s settlement of claims for special services by a hypothetical disabled student, Mary Jones, remains a “student record,” even if her name and other personal identifiers are removed from the settlement agreement. The record still “relates” to Mary Jones and discusses aspects of her life. The document does not cease becoming a “student record,” or change its fundamental character, even if, say, a redacting employee took an extra-wide marker to mask the child’s name, address, Social Security number, and other demographic information, or replaced the actual names within it with fictitious names. Jane Eyre surely was Charlotte Bronte’s novel even though it bore the pen name of “Currier Bell”; likewise the works of Samuel Clemens were no less his own despite being issued under the pseudonym of “Mark Twain.”

Of course, we only know that Charlotte Bronte authored Jane Eyre because she revealed that fact. Had she chosen to remain anonymous, no one would know that Jane Eyre “relates” to Charlotte Bronte.

The problem with the decision is that it fails to consider NJPRA’s purpose: to provide students with “reasonable privacy.” N.J.S.A. 18A:36-19. That goal is fulfilled by de-identifying student records. Beyond our state courts, numerous federal courts have also held that a de-identified record no longer “relates” to an individual student and is thus no longer exempt under FERPA.

The Appellate Division’s decision is overbroad. It will exempt any and all settlement agreements relating to students. This means the public will have no way of monitoring how its school board is spending money. Did the school board pay its own attorneys $200k to fight a trip-and-fall suit worth $10k? The public will have no way to know, because now those settlements have now been rendered categorically exempt—despite the fact that the lawsuit itself was publicly filed and available through a courts record request.

School boards will no doubt utilize the L.R. decision to exempt all sorts of records. Was an individual student discussed in a closed session? If so, a school board will no doubt try to use L.R. to justify non-disclosure of those minutes—even though redaction would suffice to protect the student’s privacy.

The Appellate Division recognized that this case is worthy of Supreme Court review and stayed its decision. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will restore a common sense approach that protects the privacy of students, but also permits the public to provide financial oversight over school boards. In other words, redaction can simultaneously advance the NJPRA’s goal of ensuring a student’s reasonable privacy and OPRA’s goal of promoting transparency.