Tag Archives: government records

Third Circuit Issues Important OPRA Decision on Legal Fees

According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, a records requestor who prevails in any proceeding shall be entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. We have written about OPRA’s fee-shifting provision before, noting that without the fee-shift most requestors would not have the funds to challenge denials of access. As a result, the state would be far less transparent.

On August 14, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an important published opinion relating to OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision.

The case, titled Golden v. New Jersey Institute for Technology, involved OPRA requests filed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden, who was seeking records from NJIT to use as research for his book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.” Many of the responsive records in NJIT’s files originated from the FBI and were purportedly subject to prohibitions on public dissemination.

The records custodian reached out to the FBI to determine how to respond to the request and the FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records “[i]n no uncertain terms.” NJIT thus denied the OPRA requests by claiming the records were exempt.  Golden sued.

After the lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court, the FBI reviewed the previously withheld records and NJIT produced thousands of pages of documents that it had formerly deemed to be exempt. Golden moved for attorney’s fees, arguing that he was a prevailing party because his lawsuit was the “catalyst” for NJIT’s release of records that were not exempt. The District Court denied the fee motion and was “persuaded by NJIT’s position that it had acted reasonably in following the FBI’s direction.”

The Third Circuit disagreed and all but stated, “If a public agency permits a third party–even if it’s the FBI–to dictate its OPRA response, then that public agency will be on the hook for attorneys’ fees if it turns out that the denial of access was unlawful.” The court made it clear that it is the custodian who has the obligation “to parse the requested records, decide whether exemptions appl[y], and withhold documents pursuant to those exemptions” and that obligation cannot be outsourced to a third party outside the agency.

Importantly, the Third Circuit flatly rejected the argument that OPRA’s fee-shifting provision contains any “reasonableness” requirement. State courts have reached the same conclusion based on the plain language of OPRA, but public agencies still make this argument to trial courts.

This decision is important because there are often times where issues of first impression are litigated and the agency was operating under good faith when it denied a request, but nonetheless was wrong as a matter of law. In such situations, the OPRA requestor is still entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. Indeed, OPRA contains a mandatory fee-shifting provision so that requestors can find competent counsel to litigate those types of cases.

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.

 

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.

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 Facebook Posts and Other Computer Records Subject to OPRA?

Update: We have written extensively about this topic since this blog was published in 2015  and have filed successful suits for Facebook records. For updated content, click here, here, and here.

As the number of public agencies with a social media presence grows, questions arise regarding whether the content of the social media sites is a “government record” subject to OPRA.  We believe that it is.

OPRA defines government records very broadly and includes “information stored or maintained electronically.”  This should cover posts made on a public agency’s official Facebook page, as well as information such as web browser history on computers used by public employees during their official course of business. Computers are, in other words, electronically storing everything a public employee does during the course of his or her day and that activity creates government records – be it posting on a Facebook page or entering data into budgeting software.  At least one court has held that “metadata” is subject to OPRA.

The difficulty, however, is how to gain access to such information.  Though all government records should be retained and public agencies should go through the proper process for disposing such records, employees tend to treat data with less care than hard copy records.  So, electronic records are often deleted and may not always be retrievable from the server.

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

Government Records Council in Violation of OPMA?

We have blogged before about a public agency’s requirement under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) to make its meeting minutes “promptly” available to the public.  Our courts have held that minutes must be made available within two weeks after a public meeting or, at a minimum, at least 48-hours prior to the next meeting.  Those who regularly file requests for meeting minutes, however, are well aware that overwhelmingly public agencies fail to meet this timeline.  Indeed, many, if not most, public agencies are months behind on releasing minutes to the public.

One such agency is the Government Records Council (GRC).  The GRC was created by the Legislature to assist in the administration of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).  The GRC offers advice to records custodians and requestors, mediates and adjudicates denial of access complaints, and provides training on OPRA to custodians and the public.  You would think, then, that they would be a stellar example to other agencies on how to comply with New Jersey’s transparency laws.  Think again.

Our client, Harry Scheeler, just filed this complaint with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office asking the prosecutor to investigate and find the GRC in violation of OPMA.  Mr. Scheeler demonstrates how the GRC is often nearly 6 months behind in making their minutes available to the public.  Their frequent excuse is that they are unable to have a quorum at their meetings to formally approve the minutes and thus the minutes are “drafts” that are exempt under OPRA.  Case law, however, is clearly that “promptly available” means just that and being months behind on approving minutes is unacceptable.

If the GRC is having trouble forming a quorum to hold its meetings (which also causes significant delay in the adjudication of OPRA complaints), perhaps the Governor should remove the members for “good cause.”  These absent members are clearly causing the GRC to fall short of its statutory obligations under OPMA.

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