Appellate Division Utilizes OPRA Decision to Conclude That Nonresidents May File Claims Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination | January 3, 2020
Most of the time, the impact of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) decision is limited and affects only other government transparency cases. For example, because of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s landmark decision in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, the public at large may request information via OPRA about police-involved shootings.
Sometimes, however, an OPRA decision can impact other areas of law too. That happened this year in Calabotta v. Phibro Animal Health Corp., 460 N.J. Super. 38 (App. Div. 2019), when an OPRA decision impacted the viability of an employment discrimination claim.
In Calabotta, the plaintiff was an Illinois resident who worked at a New Jersey company’s subsidiary in Illinois. The plaintiff alleged that he was passed over for a promotion and later terminated because his wife had cancer. He thus filed a lawsuit against the company alleging violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
The employer argued that employees who are not based in New Jersey cannot bring claims under the LAD. That argument was based upon the LAD’s preamble, which states:
The Legislature finds and declares that practices of discrimination against any of its inhabitants, because of . . . disability . . . are matters of concern to the government of the State, and that such discrimination threatens not only the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of the State but menaces the institutions and foundations of a free democratic State ....
[N.J.S.A. 10:5-3 (emphasis added).]
The trial court agreed with the employer and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint because he was not an “inhabitant” of New Jersey.
The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s dismissal. It came to its decision that non-residents may file LAD claims by relying in part upon Scheeler v. Atlantic City Mun. Joint Ins. Fund, 454 N.J. Super. 621 (App. Div. 2018), an OPRA decision that Pashman Stein Walder Hayden litigated.
In Scheeler, the Appellate Division rejected an agency’s argument that non-residents were prohibited from filing OPRA requests because a single line in Section 1 of OPRA stated that “government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying, or examination by the citizens of this State.” The Scheeler court held that although Section 1 referenced “citizens,” it was required to read the entire OPRA statute “sensibly” and as a whole. Because the more specific operational provisions of OPRA repeatedly stated that “any person” could file records requests or file an OPRA lawsuit, the Scheeler court concluded that OPRA did not contain a residency requirement.
Citing Scheeler, the Calabotta court noted that the LAD also contained numerous specific operational provisions that refer to any “person” or “individual.” It concluded that the single use of “inhabitants” in the LAD’s preamble did not signify that the Legislature intended to prohibit nonresidents from filing LAD claims. As a result, the plaintiff was able to proceed with his LAD claim in New Jersey.
As public interest lawyers, it is immensely gratifying to see how one case can positively affect others, and in this instance how the Scheeler decision about interpreting language in OPRA served as the basis for the Calabotta decision regarding language in the discrimination laws of New Jersey. Both decisions resulted in the validation of individual’s rights, which is crucial to our ongoing efforts to protect the public’s interest.