Monday, March 1, 2010

School board ordered to pay record requestor's attorney fees

On February 23, 2010, the Government Records Council (GRC) ordered the Barrington Borough (Camden County) Board of Education to pay my attorney fees after finding that the Board improperly denied me access to public records. The GRC referred the case to the Office of Administrative Law for a determination of the amount of the attorney fee award.

On December 30, 2008, after learning that several female students had settled their sexual harassment lawsuit against the Barrington school district and one of its male teachers, I requested copies of the settlement agreements. On January 21, 2009, after my initial request went unanswered, I telephoned the District's business administrator and on the same day faxed her another copy of my request. After having not received any response, I left the business administrator a detailed voice-mail on February 4, 2009. On February 23, 2009, still having received no response, my attorney, Walter M. Luers of Oxford, filed an Denial of Access Complaint with the GRC.

In response to my complaint, the business administrator explained that she had delegated my request to the Interim Superintendent who had in turn delegated it to the school board's lawyer. The business administrator said that when she received my complaint she "realized that [the attorney] did not respond to the OPRA request as I had anticipated." She then undertook further investigation and learned that the school board's insurance carrier had the requested settlement agreements on file. On April 1, 2009, the business administrator provided me with the settlement agreements disclosing that the school district paid $200,000 to settle the girls' claims. (More information about the underlying sexual harassment lawsuit is on my blog here.)

The GRC decided that the custodian's handling of my request constituted a "deemed denial" because she did not properly respond to it within seven business days of its receipt. On the issue of attorney fees, the GRC held that since my complaint brought "about a change in the Custodian's conduct" that I was the prevailing party and am entitled to my attorney fees.

The GRC's decision, together with the complaint and other filings, are on-line here.

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