Tag Archives: transparency

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.

 

Vendor Activity Reports: A Helpful Tool for Tracking Spending

Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.

A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software.  The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.

Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:

Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”

Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request,  provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

You Only Have 45 Days to Sue for an OPRA Violation

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.

What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?

The best course of action is to immediately speak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court.  Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:

  • You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, who will likely agree to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
  • A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
  • The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
  • The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
  • The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief.
  • A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
  • If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the Court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.

Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.

For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Supreme Court Rules Dash Cams Pertaining to Criminal Investigations Are Not Subject to OPRA

This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a split decision (4-3) in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and once again ruled that dash camera videos that pertain to criminal investigations are not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

While the decision is a serious disappointment to transparency advocates, it does not actually change the status quo. Last year, in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the dash cam video of a police-involved deadly shooting was not subject to OPRA because there was no Attorney General (AG) guideline or other law (statute, regulation, etc.) that required it to be made or maintained.[1]

The Court made it clear in Lyndhurst, however, that dash camera videos of police shootings should generally be released under the common law right of access within a few days of an incident. The AG subsequently issued a directive requiring their release within 20 days.

In Lyndhurst, the Court specifically said that it was not answering the question presented by Paff (which was pending on the Court’s docket): whether a directive by a local chief of police could satisfy the “required by law” standard, just as an AG directive does. Thus, the Paff case became a new opportunity for transparency advocates to convince the Court that dash camera videos are accessible under OPRA.

Unfortunately, the Court rejected that argument and thus the law remains the same: dash camera videos are only available under the common law right of access. But, it was a very close decision (4-3). Justice Albin wrote a biting dissent, which Justice LaVecchia and Justice Timpone joined, concluding that “[i]n the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police.”

We think Justice Albin’s assessment is right and we hope that the Legislature or the Attorney General will accept his invitation for action:

In accordance with Lyndhurst, the Attorney General or the Legislature can undo the damage caused by today’s decision. The Attorney General can adopt a statewide policy that addresses whether and how police video recordings are made and maintained, as he did with Use of Force Reports.

The public — particularly marginalized communities — will have greater trust in the police when law enforcement activities are transparent.

The public pays for the dash cameras. Why can’t we see the videos?

What Videos are Still Available?

  • Dash Cam Videos Relating to Crimes: These are probably not available under OPRA in most circumstances, but generally should be available under the common law per Lyndhurst.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Police Using Deadly Force: Same. Also, AG Directive 2018-1 requires disclosure under the common law within 20 days if the video depicts a deadly shooting or an incident where police use force that results in “serious bodily injury.”
  • Dash Cam Videos of a DWI: A DWI is not a crime, so these should generally be available under OPRA.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Traffic Stops: These should generally be available, unless the traffic stop turns criminal.
  • Body Camera Videos: We think these should be subject to OPRA because an AG Guideline requires them to be maintained. At the same time, the AG Guideline attempts to exempt body cam videos relating to criminal investigations. We have this issue pending on appeal.
  • Security Camera Videos: The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that security camera videos are not subject to OPRA, but access should be granted under the common law where a person states a sufficient interest in the video.

PSWH partner CJ Griffin submitted a brief on behalf of several amicus curiae and participated in the nearly three-hour oral argument. Griffin has litigated dozens of police records cases, including Lyndhurst.  Contact CJ at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com


[1] A criminal investigatory record is a record that is 1) held by a law enforcement agency; 2) pertain to any criminal investigation and 3) are “not required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file.”

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.

Update: Court Orders Disclosure of Facebook “Blocked Users” Lists

We previously wrote about an OPRA lawsuit we filed on behalf of citizen seeking a list of users that various public officials from Glen Rock have blocked from their official Facebook accounts. Today we are happy to report that the suit was successful.

In Larkin v. Glen Rock, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, A.J.S.C., ruled that the lists of blocked users from each of the Facebook pages in questions were “government records” that are subject to access under OPRA. In her 23-page opinion, the judge noted that there is no “one-size-fit-all” approach to determine whether a particular Facebook account falls within OPRA’s scope. Rather, she applied a “fact-sensitive review” of the Facebook pages at issue to conclude that they were indeed subject to OPRA.  Among other things, the judge noted that:

  • The mayor and each council member’s Facebook pages “clearly identified them as elected members of the Glen Rock governing body”
  • Each page was “separate and distinct from their personal, friends and family Facebook pages”
  • Each page was used for “discussing matters directly pending before the Mayor and Council,” including topics such as “ordinances, resolutions, budgets, and committees on which the Mayor or council member serves.”
  • The posts on each page “shared ideas, answered questions and interacted with constituents and the public at large about the Borough’s official business”
  • The Borough’s website had linked to the Facebook pages
  • The officials encouraged the public to “like” the pages in order to get information about the Borough’s business

The court also rejected Glen Rock’s argument that those who were blocked by the public officials had a right to privacy.

 

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.

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

Please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201.270.4930 for further information.

AG Issues New Police Shooting Video Directive

Last week, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal issued Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2018-1, which provides instructions to law enforcement agencies in this State regarding public access to dash camera and body camera footage of police-involved shootings.  We find that there are both pros and cons to this new directive.

Pros:
On one hand, we are very happy to see that the new Attorney General clearly understands that transparency advances public trust in law enforcement. The overall spirit of this directive is positive and it recognizes that law enforcement do not need permanent confidentiality over their records–the directive requires disclosure of police shooting videos within 20 days, in most cases. The presumption of access is important and we hope that agencies will follow the directive and will not seek constant extensions of time to release these videos.

Cons:
On the other hand, the new directive does not give the public any more access than already existed pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst. If anything, the new directive may make access to police shooting videos slower, as the Lyndhurst decision held that access must be granted “within a few days” and the new directive sets a timeline of 20 days.  We fear that  requestors will now need to wait for 20 days after an incident to file an OPRA request, then wait an additional 7 business days to gain access to the video. This is much slower than what we have experienced the past several months since the Lyndhurst decision was issued.

We are also disappointed that the directive only applies to videos which depict the use of deadly force or where other force results in “serious bodily injury.”  We think that the spirit of the Lyndhurst decision makes it clear that most police videos should be released relatively soon after an incident occurs, but the new directive applies Lyndhurst very narrowly and the public will still struggle to gain access to police video which shows other types of misconduct or more minimal uses of force.  For example, we think that if a police officer uses a racial slur toward a suspect while arresting them, the public should be able to see the video.  The new directive, however, would not require disclosure unless the suspect was seriously injured.  This is problematic.

News Coverage:
PSWH Partner CJ Griffin was quoted in NJ Advance Media’s article on the new directive.

 

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