Thursday, March 30, 2017

Appellate Court: County correctly redacted home addresses, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers from OPRA requests.

In an unpublished decision issued today, a two-judge panel of New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division affirmed a trial court's ruling that Somerset County was justified in redacting the home addresses, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers from fifty-four Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests the County had received in early 2015.

In the case, Jesse Wolosky v. Somerset County, et al, Wolosky sought, among other records, "each OPRA request received by the County from persons other than [Wolosky] from February 15, 2015 to [May 18, 2015]."  The County's records custodian located fifty-four OPRA requests that fit within the scope of Wolosky's request but excised the requestors' home addresses, e-mail addresses and phone numbers before disclosing them to Wolosky.   The County claimed that the redactions were necessary "to safeguard from public access a citizen's personal information when disclosure of the information would violate the citizen's reasonable expectation of privacy."

The appellate panel agreed with the County's position holding that Wolosky does not have a right under OPRA or the common law to access the email and home addresses of persons who submitted OPRA requests to the County.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hunterdon judge orders disclosure of police dash-cam video, denies OPRA requestor's attorney fees.

In a December 2, 2016 order, Assignment Judge Yolanda Ciccone ruled that Readington Township (Hunterdon County) must provide the Trentonian newspaper with a patrol car's dash-cam video of the August 26, 2016 arrest of Scotch Plains Police Officer Stephanie Roggina.  According to media reports, Roggina was arrested for drunk driving after she struck a guardrail while attempting to elude police. She reportedly had only been on the job since June 2016.

Judge Ciccone noted that there are presently two conflicting, published Appellate Division decisions--North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst and John Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor's Office--regarding disclosure of police dash-cam videos.  When such conflicts exist, court rules allow a judge to decide which decision to follow and Judge Ciccone found that the Paff v. Ocean County case was "in line with the Legislature's intent in drafting OPRA."

On October 27, 2016, Ciccone's counterpart in Middlesex County--Assignment Judge Travis L. Francis--similarly elected to follow the Paff v. Ocean County case in a case against Old Bridge Township in which the OPRA requestor sought a dash-cam video of the former Carteret Police Director's drunk driving arrest.

Ciccone ruled, however, that Readington was not required to pay the the Trentonian's attorneys fees because "because [Readington's] refusal to submit the footage was based in reliance on the currently good North Jersey Media Group decision." 

The lawsuit, Digital First Media v. Township of Readington, et al, Docket No. HNT-L-427-16 was filed by Hackensack attorney C.J. Griffin on September 30, 2016. 

According to Griffin, Readington and the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's office, which was also named as a defendant in the case, appealed Judge Ciccone's order. The release the video has been stayed until after the Supreme Court resolves both the North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst and Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor's Office cases.  Griffin said that she cross-appealed from the part of the order that denied attorney's fees.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Prosecutor: Library Board meeting violated the Meetings Act

In a March 6, 2017 letter, the Union County Prosecutor's Office told the Berkeley Heights (Union County) Library Board of Trustees that it violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by discussing contract negotiations during a nonpublic (i.e closed or executive) session with the other party to the contract in attendance.

N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b)(7) expressly permits contract negotiations to be discussed outside of public view to prevent the other party to the contract from learning the public body's strategy.  But, when the other party participates in the discussion, tthe only ones being kept in the dark are members of the public--the precise group the OPMA intends to keep informed.

The letter, authored by Acting Assistant Prosecutor Shawn P. Barnes, cites the unpublished Appellate Division opinion in Maureen Nevin, et al v. Asbury Park City Council and said that the case was "applicable and controlling in this case."  Nevin sits on the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government's (NJFOG) Board of Directors as the representative of the New Jersey Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Bergen judge rebuffs Teaneck's bid to bar "abusive and excessive" OPRA requests.

In his March 9, 2017 opinion, Bergen County Superior Court Judge Robert P. Contillo rejected Teaneck Township's attempt to bar future Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests from a man who made 380 requests in a two-month period.  The judge also denied Teaneck's bid to require the man to pay "extraordinary handling fees" and to relieve it from processing those requests.

According to the opinion, Elie C. Jones filed "an avalanche" of OPRA requests soon after the Township rejected a $10,000 settlement demand Jones had made to resolve his lawsuit against a Teaneck law enforcement officer.  Judge Contillo noted that under the circumstances, "it is easy to under the Township's frustration."  Still, he found that "OPRA requests--even those designed and timed to bludgeon a municipality into a financial settlement--cause no immediate or irreparable harm."  A showing of such harm is required before an injunction can be issued.

The judge noted that Teaneck is "not powerless" and that OPRA provides remedies for public entities facing an enormous number of requests.  One remedy contained in N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(g) permits the Township to deny requests that "substantially disrupt agency operations" if the requestor refuses the Township's attempts to reach a solution that would accommodate both it and the requestor.  For example, the Township could have requested that Jones prioritize his requests and assess a special service charge for the extraordinary amount of time it would take to fulfill them. Since the lawsuit was filed, Jones had abandoned 290 of his 380 requests, which Judge Contillo found undermined the Township's argument for an injunction.

Judge Contillo also denied the Township's request that the court "assess a special handling fee" because "it is not for the court to assess the fee."  Rather, OPRA requires the Township to assess the fee leaving the requestor with the option to pay the fee, challenge it in court or abandon the request.

The court also wrote that if Township officials felt that Jones' conduct constituted harassment, they could proceed against him under both the civil and criminal code. 

Jones was represented in the matter by Walter M. Luers of Clinton.