Tag Archives: media law

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.

Imposing Personal Penalties Upon Those Who Knowingly Violate OPRA

Today, The Record published a story about the Borough of Wallington’s decision to suspend its Borough Clerk and file tenure charges against him with the state Department of Community Affairs. According to The Record, the Clerk is charged with “serious deficiencies,” including failing to comply with OPRA’s statutory time frames “43 times in 2018 and 36 times in 2017.”

PSWH Partner CJ Griffin is quoted in the article and discusses the potential liability both a public agency and its records custodian (or other employees) could face for violating OPRA.

Most OPRA cases involve an “ordinary” denial of access that occurred for one reason or the other. It may be that the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request applied the law incorrectly or that the law was unclear as to whether a record is exempt or not. A records requestor has a right to challenge such a denial and if the court agrees that the response was unlawful, the remedy is that the court will order the record to be released and require the public agency to pay the requestor’s reasonable attorneys’ fees. No public employee personally pays these attorneys’ fees, even if they were the ones who came to the wrong conclusion to withhold a government record from public access.

Beyond the “ordinary” OPRA case, a requestor can seek personal penalties against the records custodian or person responding to the OPRA request. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-11(a):

“[a] public official, officer, employee or custodian who knowingly and willfully violates [OPRA] . . . and is found to have unreasonably denied access under the totality of the circumstances, shall be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for an initial violation, $2,500 for a second violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation, and $5,000 for a third violation that occurs within 10 years of an initial violation.”

The fine is imposed upon the public official, officer, employee or custodian personally and the agency does not pay this fine.

What constitutes a knowing and willful violation of OPRA? There is not a lot of case law on this, but it is clear that in order for the denial to be considered willful the person responding to the request must have actual knowledge that their actions are unlawful.