New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses Appellate Court, Grants Access to Public Records

In a decision being heralded as a victory for public access and transparency, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously overturned an Appellate Division decision that had blocked its access to public information.

The case had been filed by an advocacy group called Libertarians for Transparent Government, which had originally filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for a settlement agreement between Cumberland County, New Jersey and Tyrone Ellis, a county correctional officer.

In 2017, Ellis and several colleagues were named in a lawsuit alleging that they’d forced a woman to engage in non-consensual sex acts. The Libertarians for Transparent Government had first obtained the minutes of a meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System where Ellis’ application for special retirement had been discussed.  Those minutes made clear that the County had intended to fire Ellis, and that despite his resignation prosecution of the disciplinary matter would continue. In return for a promise of cooperation into the conduct of his colleagues, however, the minutes recorded an agreement that the charges would be dropped and that Ellis would retire “in good standing,” albeit with a reduced pension.

When the advocacy group’s OPRA request for the settlement agreement was received it specified that the officer’s “name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefore’ be included, as specified under New Jersey’s laws. Instead, the County responded by saying that because the agreement was a personnel record, it was exempt from disclosure. The group subsequently sued in Superior Court, where it was ordered that a redacted version of the settlement agreement be provided. This decision was reversed by the Appellate Division, leading to the appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In its review, the high court acknowledged the confidentiality under OPRA of personnel records, but also noted that certain aspects of personnel records qualify as a government record that fall under the terms of OPRA, and that the statute “calls for a careful balancing of the right of access to government records versus the need to protect personal information.” The court went on to list the three specific areas of personnel records that are exceptions to exemption from disclosure, one of which is the employee’s name, title, date of separation, and reason for separation, as well as any type of pension that they receive. The court interpreted that to mean that records of this type of settlement agreement should be available to the public once redacted.

Transparency is a key tenet of our justice system, and particularly when it comes to issues involving employment. If you have questions about your rights regarding employment discrimination or harassment, contact us today to learn how we can help.

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