Libertarians v. Cumberland County, 250 N.J. 46 (2022)


In 2017, a woman incarcerated at the Cumberland County Jail filed a lawsuit alleging she was sexually abused by correctional officers, including Tyrone Ellis. The county filed disciplinary charges against Ellis. Ellis admitted he had “inappropriate relationships with two inmates” and agreed to cooperate with investigators. The county then dismissed the charges and allowed Ellis to retire in good standing with a reduced pension.

When Libertarians for Transparent Government (LFTG) sought full details of Ellis’s settlement through OPRA, Cumberland County officials refused, saying the agreement was a personnel record and therefore exempt from OPRA. The county instead offered a brief, sanitized summary of what occurred, stating it had “charged Ellis with a disciplinary infraction” and “terminated” him. Griffin sued on LFTG’s behalf to seek the agreement and hold the county responsible for falsely stating it had terminated Ellis when he was instead permitted to retire in good standing.

In a March 2022 unanimous decision written by Chief Justice Rabner, the Court found that the county was obligated to disclose the settlement agreement because it contained Ellis’ real “reason for separation,” — information that OPRA requires to be disclosed even if it is contained in a personnel record.

The Court noted that disclosure of the agreement itself was important because “without access to actual documents in cases like this, the public can be left with incomplete or incorrect information. Access to public records fosters transparency, accountability, and candor. That applies to questions about sexual abuse in prison as well as the overall operation of prison facilities and other aspects of government.”

The Court’s decision reinforced a fundamental principle: The public has a right to examine the original records and does not have to accept a governmental agency's summary of events.

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