Tag Archives: open public records act

Sunshine Week Begins With Supreme Court OPRA Case

It’s Sunshine Week and this year it kicks off in New Jersey with oral arguments before our Supreme Court in an important Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case.

On March 15, 2021, the Supreme Court will hear Bozzi v. City of Jersey City, a case that asks whether a list of names and addresses of dog license holders are accessible under OPRA. The plaintiff seeks the list for commercial purposes–he intends to mail dog owners information about his invisible fences.  The case is listed as the second case of the day, which means arguments will begin sometime after 11:00 a.m. You can watch it here.

CJ Griffin of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden will be participating in the case and will be arguing last. Griffin filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government, arguing that the Legislature has rejected numerous bills that attempted to exempt dog owner lists or that sought to limit the ability of commercial requestors to utilize OPRA. The amicus brief also explains that limiting this commercial requestor’s right of access will cause harm to all the other requestors who might seek lists of dog owners to benefit the public in some way.

Unfortunately, public agencies sometimes use OPRA’s privacy provision not as a shield to protect legitimate privacy rights, but rather as a sword to attack a requestor’s reason for seeking records, something that should be irrelevant.  In this case, a commercial requestor’s right to obtain public records is under attack, but in other instances the ones under attack are the so-called “gadflies” or the persistent reporters who are thorns in the sides of politicians.  If the Court decides in the City’s favor in this case, the consequences will not be limited only to the addresses of dog license owners or to commercial requestors.  Public agencies will undoubtedly think of far-fetched reasons to invoke OPRA’s privacy provision so that the balancing test applies.  Requestors will then have to sue and convince courts that that their reasons for wanting the records serve a “legitimate public purpose.”  In other words, an interest requirement will be engrafted into OPRA where one does not exist, and as a result, all requestors, whether commercial or not, will have to fight harder to access information that should be statutorily available to them as of right.

. . .

Even if this Court considered a commercial interest to be insufficient to gain access to the dog license records in this case, there are clearly other reasons for requesting these records that do advance “legitimate public purposes.”  For example, someone who encounters a neighbor’s aggressive dog might want to determine if the dog is licensed and vaccinated.  . . .  Someone who runs a local animal rights group might want to contact other dog owners to rally them to pass better animal welfare laws, to lobby for a local dog park, or to alert them to local dangers to dogs.  An animal rescue organization might want to independently verify that the dogs it has adopted out have been properly licensed and vaccinated, or it might want to screen prospective adopters to determine if they have other pets (or had other pets that they surrendered) that they are not disclosing on their adoption applications.  A watchdog group like LFTG might want to investigate whether public officials are failing to license their own pets all while hypocritically ticketing members of the public for failing to do so.  Or, it might want to verify that the list of licenses is accurate and that all of the money collected from licenses are distributed in the proper accounts and transmitted in full to the proper state agencies. . . . A research organization might seek the names and addresses of dog license owners so that it can map them and determine whether certain neighborhoods have more licensed dogs than others and whether there is any correlation to economic factors, such as income, in the ownership or licensure of dogs.

NJ Advance Media previously wrote about the case when it was pending in the trial court. Both the trial court and the Appellate Division ruled that the list must be disclosed.

Bill Would Exempt Addresses of Legislators, Probation Officers

As our readers may recall, Governor Murphy recently signed “Daniel’s Law” into law, which exempts the home addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from access under OPRA. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature would expand those exemptions to include two additional categories of persons.

Among other things, Senate Bill 3209  exempts from OPRA “that portion of any document which discloses the home address, whether a primary or secondary residence, of any active, formerly active, or retired probation officer or member of the Legislature.”

The addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, probation officers and members of the Legislature are likely to appear in land deeds, property tax records, financial disclosure statements, and a variety of other quintessential public records that are available online in a variety of databases.

It is difficult to understand how public agencies would comply with this proposed law. There is no comprehensive list of every current and former probation officer or legislator that has ever worked or held office in this state so that a clerk would know which records to redact. NJ Advance Media has already written about how some agencies are struggling to comply with Daniel’s Law because there is similarly no master list of every current or former judge, prosecutor, or law enforcement officer that has ever worked in this state. Collectively, Daniel’s Law and S.3209 likely exempt tens of thousands of addresses.

S.3209 will be heard on January 14, 2021 at 10:15 a.m. in the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee.

For questions about this blog or OPRA, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

2020 Transparency Year in Review

Happy New Year! The year 2020 was a year unlike any other. As we look back at transparency issues that arose over the past year, we hope that this blog finds our readers healthy and well.

Pandemic Creates Transparency Hurdles

Transparency was front and center in New Jersey in 2020, although sometimes it was the lack of transparency that was the focus.

On March 9, 2020, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 103 to declare a Public Health Emergency in New Jersey. Days later, the Legislature rushed to amend the Open Public Meetings Act (OPRA) so that public agencies would not have to comply with the statute’s seven-day deadline during the pandemic. As a result, many requestors have found their OPRA requests stalled for weeks or months with no response. Given that Governor Murphy will likely continue to extend the Public Health Emergency declarations for quite some time, requestors can expect access to be slow for many more months.

Another major transparency hurdle in 2020 was the Emergency Health Powers Act. The 2005 law is designed to give the Governor vast powers during a public health crisis, but it also contains an expansive exemption that sates: “Any correspondence, records, reports and medical information made, maintained, received or filed pursuant to this act shall not be considered a public or government record under [OPRA].” N.J.S.A. 26:13-26. Several media outlets reported that the State was using the exemption to keep important information from the public, such as records about which medical facilities lacked protective gear or information about hospital capacity and supplies at nursing homes.

Police Use of Force Records

Access to police use of force records continues to be a challenge, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2017 decision in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017), which held that such records should be accessible to the public.

In January, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Rivera v. Township of Bloomfield and held that police body-worn camera videos are subject to OPRA. The video at issue recorded police shooting and killing a man in Bloomfield in August 2017.

In February, the Appellate Division granted our client’s appeal in Digital First Media v. Ewing Township, 462 N.J. Super. 389 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, The Trentonian newspaper sought a copy of a Use of Force Report (UFR) that related to force that Ewing police officers used against a teenager. Although the trial court held that the UFR could not be released due to a statute that exempts records relating to juveniles charged as delinquent, the Appellate Division granted our appeal and ruled that the UFR must be released with the juvenile’s name redacted. Ewing Township was also required to pay the newspaper’s legal fees.

In October, we published a blog detailing how the State rarely complies with Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive 2019-4, which requires disclosure of videos of police deadly force incidents within 20 days. Per our count, only one video had been released within the 20-day deadline all year.

Transparency in Police Discipline

In 2020, there were some positive advances in transparency regarding police discipline on a policy level, but also a mixed bag when it came to judicial opinions on this issue.

In Libertarians for Transparent Government v. New Jersey State Police, the requestor sought the name of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” for “engaging in racially offensive behavior.” Although both lower courts denied access to the name, the Supreme Court granted certification and was set to review the case. In mid-June, the Attorney General’s office reversed course, granted access to the name, paid the requestor’s legal fees, and issued Law Enforcement Directives 2020-5 and 2020-6. The Directives require disclosure of the names of officers who receive “major discipline,” information that had never been disclosed before.

Shortly after the Directives were issued, several police unions filed challenges and argued that the Attorney General lacked the authority to compel such disclosures. In October 2020, the Appellate Division upheld the Directives. Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court granted certification and oral argument is set for March 2021. In the interim, the Directives are stayed and no disclosures have been made.

In mid-June, the Appellate Division reversed a trial court decision that had compelled access to internal affairs reports relating to the former Police Director of the City of Elizabeth Police Department who had resigned after it came to light that he used “racist and misogynistic slurs.” The Appellate Division concluded that internal affairs reports are confidential pursuant to the Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Policy and cannot be released even pursuant to the common law right of access. A petition for certification is pending.

In late June, a bill was introduced in the Senate to make all police disciplinary records subject to OPRA, including police internal affairs files. Although Senate Bill No. 2656 has not yet been heard in a committee, more than 100 organizations have endorsed it. New Jersey is one of only 21 states that treat all internal affairs records confidential.

During a July 15th public hearing before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal seemed to embrace greater transparency in internal affairs investigations, stating: “[W]hen it comes to the transparency of police disciplinary records, New Jersey needs to end its outlier status and move towards greater openness. We can and should be a national leader on this issue.”

In early December, the Attorney General released the internal affairs files of Philip Seidle, a former Neptune police officer who shot and killed his wife in 2015. The Asbury Park Press had been fighting in court to gain access to the files for several years. Its case remains pending as to whether the newspaper is entitled to legal fees and whether such files are subject to access under OPRA.

Other Significant Transparency Decisions

There were a few OPRA decisions by the Appellate Division this year, at least two of which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year.

In February, the Appellate Division ruled in Bozzi v. Borough of Roselle Park, 462 N.J. Super. 415 (App. Div. 2020), that there was no privacy interest that precluded a commercial requestor from obtaining a list of dog license holders so that he could send them solicitations for his electric fence installation service. The Supreme Court granted certification in a separate case that reached the same conclusion, Bozzi v. City of Jersey City, and the case is pending.

In June, the Appellate Division held in Simmons v. Mercado, 464 N.J. Super. 77 (App. Div. 2020), that complaints and summonses are not “government records” that are subject to OPRA because the judiciary (which is not subject to OPRA) is the custodian of records and not the police departments who enter them into the judiciary’s computer system. The Supreme Court granted certification and the case is pending.

In September, the Appellate Division issued a disappointing opinion in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County, 465 N.J. Super. 11 (App. Div. 2020). In that case, our client learned that a county corrections officer had faced disciplinary charges for “engaging in sex” with two inmates and bringing them contraband, but that because the officer agreed to cooperate with an investigation he was allowed to retire in good standing with a pension pursuant to a separation agreement. In response to an OPRA request our client filed, Cumberland County stated that the officer was “terminated” and it denied access to the agreement. The trial court ruled that the County violated OPRA by falsely stating the officer was terminated when he was really permitted to retire in good standing and it compelled access to the agreement. Unfortunately, the Appellate Division reversed. Although it agreed that the County had not been truthful about the officer’s reason for separation, it found that the agreement was exempt under OPRA’s personnel record exemption. It remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether access should be granted under the common law, but the case is currently stayed while a petition for certification is pending in the Supreme Court.

In December 2020, John Paff reported that Cumberland County settled a lawsuit relating to the same officer for $150,000, in which a woman inmate had alleged that he and other corrections officers had sexually abused her.

The danger of the Libertarians decision is that it will permit public agencies to enter into agreements with employees and keep the details of those agreements a secret. This deprives the public of the ability to determine whether the agreement was reasonable and advanced the public’s interests. It will also likely allow the exchange of money without any public oversight whatsoever, something that is highly problematic.

In November, Governor Murphy signed A-1649 into law. Commonly known as “Daniel’s Law,” it exempts the addresses of current and former judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers from OPRA. It is unclear how public agencies will be able to comply with this law since there is no central list of such addresses to cross reference.

For more information about this blog or questions about OPRA, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

New Use of Force Policy Makes Positive Changes, But Also Raises Questions

On December 21, 2020, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced changes to the statewide “Use of Force Policy,” the first revision to the policy in two decades. Among other things, the new policy prohibits the use of deadly force against citizens “except as an absolute last resort.” Because the Attorney General is New Jersey’s “chief law enforcement officer,” this policy is binding upon every law enforcement agency in the state.

The new policy has been widely applauded by both the law enforcement community and the civil rights community. In terms of transparency, we find that it contains positive changes but also raises some questions.

Changes to Use of Force Reporting

Readers may recall that there has been significant litigation regarding public access to Use of Force Reports (UFRs), which are reports that law enforcement officers are required to complete, per the policy, any time force is used against another person. In 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that UFRs are subject to OPRA in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017). In 2020, the Appellate Division rejected an agency’s attempt to withhold UFRs that relate to juveniles, ruling in Digital First Media v. Ewing Township, 462 N.J. Super. 389 (App. Div. 2020), that the agency must instead redact the juveniles name from the UFR and release them.  Both cases were litigated by Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.

The new Use of Force Policy maintains the requirement that officers complete UFRs after each and every use of force, but it modifies the requirement in some positive ways.

First, the old policy did not specify a deadline for completing a UFR and many officers would wait weeks or months to fill them out. This kept the public from learning important details about the incident. The updated policy now requires UFRs to be completed within 24 hours. This will ensure prompt public access.

Second, under both the old policy and the new policy, pointing a firearm at someone is considered “constructive authority” and not a “use of force.” Under the old policy, only uses of force had to be reported on a UFR and therefore there was no requirement that police officers complete a report when they pointed a firearm at anyone. Under Section 3.4 of the new policy, officers are required to report anytime they point a firearm at a person. Section 3.7.5 also requires officers to report Conductive Energy Device (tasers) spark displays as well.

Third, under the old policy, force was reported on a one-page hard copy UFR. Under the new policy, force is reported through an online “Use of Force Portal.” Thus, UFRs now exist in electronic form and they will also capture much more information than ever before, making it much easier to analyze trends in how force is used and which officers are using force more than others.

Questions About Public Access

Despite the positive changes, we do have some questions and concerns regarding transparency under the new Use of Force Policy.

First, the Attorney General announced that “a version of the portal will be accessible for public review in the first quarter of 2021.” It is unclear what that public version will look like and whether it will contain as much information as the internal version of the portal. It is also important that the public have access to raw data rather than mere summaries of information and it would be a shame if people still had to file OPRA requests to obtain individual UFRs. We are hopeful that the public portal will be expansive and allow people to download UFRs and analytical reports and that the data is available in real time as UFRs are completed, not on a delay.

Second, we have concerns regarding reporting on deadly force incidents. The old policy required the completion of a UFR for all uses of force, including deadly force. Section 7.3 of the new policy suggests that the new portal will be used to report only non-deadly force because it states: “When an officer uses force as defined in Section 3 of this Policy and the result is not fatal, the officer shall complete a report in the Use of Force Portal[.]”  Section 7.1 then dictates a separate procedure for reporting deadly force: “Notification of fatal and serious bodily injury law enforcement incidents shall be made in accordance with AG Directive 2019-4.”

It is unclear how that deadly force notification actually occurs because Directive 2019-4 simply states: “As soon as any local, county, or state law enforcement agency learns of a Law Enforcement Incident, the agency should immediately notify the County Prosecutor’s Office of the county in which the incident occurred, who shall in turn immediately notify the OPIA Director or their designee.” If those fatal force notifications are made verbally, then there would be no documentation for the public to access. In prior years, agencies would complete a “Police Use of Deadly Force–Attorney General Deadly Notification Report,” but those do not seem to be completed as often now.

If UFRs are no longer required under the new Use of Force Policy for fatal uses of force, that would be a significant departure from the old policy and would shield important details from the public about deadly force incidents.  If the Use of Force Portal does not include data about deadly force incidents, that is alarming and would skew the data in the public portal. The use of deadly force is obviously of significant interest to the public.

For questions about this blog or about OPRA, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

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.

 

 

Access Begins With A Valid OPRA Request

Each month, we receive dozens of inquiries from people who are upset that their OPRA requests were denied. The most frequent basis for denial is that the request is invalid as written. Although there are records custodians who will happily work with the requestor to fulfill a less-than-perfect request, other custodians will quickly deny any request that does not strictly comply with OPRA’s requirements.  A valid OPRA request is thus the critical first step to obtaining public records and it is important to draft a request that follows some basic guidelines.

Guideline 1:  Do not ask questions in an OPRA request. Although people usually file OPRA requests because they have questions about some public issue, an agency has no obligation to answer those questions. An agency’s only obligation under OPRA is to produce non-exempt public records. Although elected public officials may answer questions via email or at a public meeting, an OPRA request must stick to requesting documents.

Guideline 2: Provide a reasonable timeframe. Public agencies are permitted to impose special service charges where a request requires an “extraordinary” amount of time to fulfill. Requestors must be mindful of how many documents will be responsive to the request and keep the timeframe relatively narrow.

Guideline 3: Seek identifiable records. A valid OPRA request seeks identifiable documents. A request that seeks “any and all records relating to the town’s animal control services” is overbroad because it leaves the custodian not knowing what the requestor wants. Instead, requestors must identify specific, such as “I seek the following records relating to the town’s animal control services: shared services agreements for 2018, the health inspection report for the animal shelter for 2018, and all settlement agreements involving the animal shelter for 2018-2019.”

Tip: There are several ways to learn about what types of records might exist:

  1. Look for statutes, regulations and ordinances on the topic. Many government operations must comply with specific provisions of law. Animal control, for example, is highly-regulated and there are state statutes and regulations that require animal shelters to maintain certain paperwork. Looking at the statutes and regulations will help identify some records that might exist.
  2. Look at records retention schedules. All agencies must comply with the State’s records retention laws. Although the records retention schedules do not list every record that must be maintained, they provide some information regarding the types of documents an agency might possess.
  3. Request agency policies. An agency’s written policies, standard operating procedures, or operating handbooks might provide information regarding the types of written reports employees are required to generate or the types of records the agency must keep.
  4. Ask the agency. Believe it or not, many government employees will happily help a requestor identify what record exists if they know what type of information the requestor is seeking.

Guideline 4State the preferred format and method of delivery. A request should indicate if the requestor wants the records to be sent to them via email for free or if they want to receive hard copies, which cost 5 cents per page. The request should indicate the preferred format, such as an Excel file or a PDF. Stating these preferences up front in the OPRA request avoids confusion.

Following these general guidelines will help requestors overcome the first hurdle and send the records custodian on the hunt for responsive government records.

close-up-photography-of-crumpled-paper-963048

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

 

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.

 

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.

CJ Griffin Interviewed for Marketplace Reports on NPR

CJ Griffin, a member of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden’s Media Law Group, was interviewed by Marketplace regarding a prior OPRA lawsuit she brought against the City of Newark seeking its Amazon HQ2 bid.

The public radio program, “What’s in Those Amazon HQ2 Bids? It’s Not Entirely Clear” by Renata Sago and Leila Goldstein, aired on Tuesday, November 6th.

“There’s hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, of tax dollars, at stake,” said CJ Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who argued the case. “That’s taxpayer money. When you give tax breaks, that impacts other people, so the public has a right to know.”

To listen to the story, click here

For more background on the lawsuit, click here.