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OPRA Does Not Authorize Anonymous Filings in Superior Court

By on December 11, 2015 in Open Public Records Act with 0 Comments

In a published decision dated September 17, 2015, the New Jersey Appellate Division in A.A. v. Gramiccioni, et al., 442 N.J. Super. 276 (2015) affirmed the trial court’s determination that, under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”), an individual may not anonymously file a complaint in Superior Court.  OPRA governs the public’s access to government records in New Jersey. 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 the Superior Court or with the Government Records Council.

A.A. filed an anonymous complaint in Superior Court after the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office denied his OPRA request seeking records pertaining to an investigation of a municipal employee who allegedly stole an electric generator. A.A. refused to identify himself and chose to file the complaint using only his initials. The Prosecutor’s Office moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 4:26-1 for A.A.’s failure to prosecute in the name of the real party in interest. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s reasoning that while OPRA permits an individual to anonymously request records from a public agency and the Government Records Council accepts anonymous complaints, OPRA does not allow the filing of an anonymous complaint in Superior Court.

The Appellate Division reasoned that the Legislature has not expressly provided OPRA requestors the right to proceed anonymously in Superior Court, unlike other matters, such as those involving child victims or abuse. Moreover, the Appellate Division found that no court rule authorizes an individual to file an anonymous complaint in Superior Court.  Specifically, Rule 1:4-1(a) requires that a complaint in a civil action include the names of all parties absent any express authorization by statute or rule or some compelling reason. A.A. presented no persuasive reason to proceed anonymously, and the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint.

In addition, the Appellate Division also upheld the trial court’s determination to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint on the grounds that he failed to comply with Rule 4:67.  A.A. filed an action in lieu of prerogative writs to challenge the denial of his OPRA request instead of an Order to Show Cause and Verified Complaint as required by Rule 4:67.

School districts must not deny an OPRA request on the sole basis that the requestor fails to disclose his or her identity. However, if that anonymous individual seeks to challenge a denial of an OPRA request in Superior Court, the school district should seek to dismiss the complaint. The A.A. v. Gramiccioni case serves as a reminder that failure to comply with the procedural and technical filing requirements in Superior Court will lead to dismissal of an OPRA lawsuit.

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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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