Wronko v. N.J. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 453 N.J. Super. 73 (App. Div. 2018)
Collene Wronko is an animal rights activist. In 2014, she filed an OPRA request with the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA). To her surprise, the NJSPCA responded that it was not subject to OPRA.
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden attorney CJ Griffin filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wronko, arguing that the NJSPCA was in fact subject to OPRA because it met the definition of “public agency.” Among other things, the NJSPCA was created by a state statute, had board members appointed by the governor, and held significant police powers (including the power to arrest individuals and seize property). The trial court agreed and found the NJSPCA in violation of OPRA.
The NJSPCA appealed and argued that even if it might meet the definition of “public agency,” it should be exempt from complying with OPRA because it was a nonprofit organization, did not have a line item in the state budget, and had limited staffing.
The Appellate Division rejected the NJSPCA’s arguments and found that it clearly met the definition of “public agency” given that it performed exclusive government functions and had police powers. The court also rejected the NJSPCA’s arguments that it did not have public funding. Although it recognized the NJSPCA did not have a “line item” in the state budget, it noted that NJSPCA was provided funding through several other statutory means, such as the right to collect fines and penalties for enforcing the animal cruelty laws.
Shortly after the Appellate Division’s decision, the Legislature stripped the NJSPCA of its police powers due, in part, to the issues that greater transparency revealed.
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden collected a legal fee for this case.