Matter of New Jersey Firemen's Association Obligation to Provide Relief Application Under Open Public Records Act, 230 N.J. 258 (2017)

1.1.17

In Matter of New Jersey Firemen’s Association Obligation to Provide Relief Applications Under Open Public Records Act, 230 N.J. 258 (2017), the requestor was a longtime member of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (NJSFA), an organization which provides welfare and death benefits to qualified active and retired volunteer, part-time, and paid firefighters and their families. The requestor learned that John Doe, a volunteer firefighter who was terminated from his full-time public employment for “conduct unbecoming a Township employee,” had filed a request for financial relief with NJSFA.

The requestor wanted to confirm whether John Doe actually received relief funds, so that he could notify other members of the NJSFA that the procedures for awarding relief funds should be modified so that money is not given to someone whose financial predicament was created entirely by his own misconduct, and misconduct that also disgraced the fire service. Accordingly, the requestor filed an OPRA request with NJSFA seeking a copy of John Doe’s relief application (to see whether his misconduct was disclosed) and a copy of the relief checks that were issued to him.

NJSFA denied the OPRA requests by citing OPRA’s privacy provision, but then immediately rushed to sue the requestor in Superior Court. After losing in the trial court and obtaining a reversal in the Appellate Division, the case made its way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden represented the requestor in the New Jersey Supreme Court. We argued that OPRA expressly states that “the right to institute any proceeding . . . belongs solely to the requestor” and thus, by suing the requestor, the NJSFA violated his right to choose the forum where a denial of access should be litigated or his right to simply accept the denial and walk away from the request.

Although the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s holding that an agency can never file a declaratory judgment act regarding an OPRA request, it agreed that the agency’s action against the requestor was impermissible because OPRA gives the exclusive right to the requestor to challenge a denial of access, not an agency, and in which forum the requestor can pursue the action (i.e., via the Superior Court or Government Records Council).

Press Coverage:

Supreme Court’s OPRA Ruling Represents a Backward Step | New Jersey Law Journal | September 1, 2017

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