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Appellate Division Rules in Favor of Public Entities in Two OPRA Cases Involving Redactions

By on January 24, 2017 in Open Public Records Act with 0 Comments

On January 13 and 19, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued two unpublished decisions in the favor of public entities regarding redactions made to documents disclosed pursuant to the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”). These cases clarify what information may be redacted from government records when released under OPRA.

Public agencies, including school districts and charter schools, must comply with OPRA, which requires disclosure of a government record unless a specific exception applies. An individual who believes that a public agency improperly denied his or her OPRA request may challenge that determination by filing a complaint in Superior Court or with the Government Records Council (“GRC”).

In Wolosky v. Sparta Board of Education, Plaintiff submitted an OPRA request to the Sparta Board of Education (“Board”) for invoices from the Board’s attorney for a three-month period. The Board provided the requested government records but redacted student initials which appeared on the invoices. Plaintiff sued in Superior Court. The trial court upheld the Board’s redactions to the documents. Plaintiff then appealed to the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

While a public entity’s legal bills are generally disclosable under OPRA, specific entries should be redacted if any of OPRA exceptions apply, such as the attorney-client privilege. Moreover, certain information should also be redacted if an individual’s privacy interest outweighs the public’s access to the record. In analyzing the redactions, the Appellate Division rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the initials are sufficient to protect the privacy interests of the students. The Appellate Division recognized the heightened level of privacy attached to student information and upheld the redaction of student initials.

In Scheeler v. New Jersey Department of Education, Plaintiff challenged the New Jersey Department of Education’s (“NJDOE”) redaction of school board members’ home street addresses on financial disclosure statements. In this case, Plaintiff made an OPRA request to the NJDOE seeking financial disclosure statements filed with the School Ethics Commission for various Woodbine Board of Education members. In response, the NJDOE provided the documents, disclosed each person’s town, state, and zip code but redacted street addresses. Plaintiff first filed a complaint with the GRC, which upheld the NJDOE’s decision. Thereafter, Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division upheld the NJDOE’s redactions, reasoning that the privacy interests of the board members outweigh the public’s access to government records. While board members are elected to public office, the Appellate Division agreed with the GRC that they do not waive their right to separate service from their personal lives. Such involuntary disclosure could “chill an individual’s interest in running for office.” Moreover, no statute or regulation mandates that the financial disclosure statement include a home address.

OPRA requests must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Even if a government record is disclosable, certain portions of that record could require redaction to protect an individual’s personal information.

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Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev

About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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