Friday, June 6, 2014

School Board appeals Mercer judge's fee award to pro-se attorney in OPRA case.

In an unusual decision, Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson on March 5, 2014 awarded a Princeton lawyer his attorney fees on an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) case even though the lawyer represented himself in the action.

In the case, Fisher v. Hamilton Board of Education, Docket No. MER-L-2217-13 (documents on-line here), George W. Fisher of Zuckerman and Fisher, LLC, argued that even though pro-se parties ordinarily do not get paid attorney fees, his case should be an exception because his lawsuit vindicated important public interests rather than his own private rights.

Fisher had sought minutes and other writings that authorized Board President Jeff Hewitson "to participate in and/or speak at the "'Welcome back' by [Superintendent] Dr. [James] Parla to district staff at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year."  In his brief, Fisher said that he was concerned that the "Welcome Back" event may have been a "campaign podium for [a board member's] re-election" in the Boards November 2013 election. The Board denied the request claiming that it was "overly broad" and a "blanket request for a class of documents which would require an open-ended search of the Board's records."

Jacobson agreed with Fisher and, on December 11, 2013, ordered the Board to either grant or deny the existence of the requested records and declared Fisher the prevailing party and awarded him counsel fees.  In a March 5, 2014 Order, Jacobson established the amount of the fees as $6,295.  The school board did not contest the amount of the fee that Fisher sought but instead maintained the he wasn't entitled to counsel fees at all.

The school board filed its appeal on January 24, 2014 (Appellate Division Docket No. A-2339-13T2) even though the case's final order was not issued until March 5, 2014. 

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