Friday, March 30, 2018

GRC holds that it was OK for a records custodian to unilaterally grant himself a two-week extension.

In a March 27, 2018 decision, the Government Records Council (GRC) held that the Summit (Union County) school district did not violate the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) by unilaterally granting itself a two-week extension to fulfill a records request.

The request, submitted on June 27, 2016, was for a civil complaint and a settlement agreement.  On July 6, 2016, the school district wrote that the "request requires an extension of time until July 25, 2016 based on anticipated availability."  Attorney Richard M. Gutman of Montclair filed a Denial of Access complaint on July 9, 2016 and the school district disclosed the requested records on July 22, 2016.

Gutman's argument was that OPRA, specifically N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(i), allows custodians to unilaterally extend the seven business-day response period only if the requested records are "in storage or archived."  The Summit district, however, did not even claim that the records were in storage.  In the complaint, Gutman wrote: "If custodians could extend the seven-day deadline by simply unilaterally granting themselves an extension of time, the seven-day deadline would be meaningless."  (Another provision of OPRA, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(g), allows custodians to seek an extension if timely production would "substantially disrupt agency operations." But, in such a case, the custodian is obligated to "attempt[] to reach a reasonable solution with the requestor that accommodates the interests of the requestor and the agency.")

The GRC's Executive Director wrote that "the Council’s long-standing precedent on extensions above is more permissive" and that the extension wasn't unreasonable.  The Executive Director cautioned, however, that "[a]lthough extensions are rooted in well-settled case law, the Council need not unquestioningly find valid every request for an extension containing a clear deadline."