Yesterday, the New Jersey Appellate Division resolved the long-standing question of whether the Open Public Records Act only required responses to records requests from New Jersey residents.
As OPRA counsel to numerous public entities in New Jersey, we are continually reviewing the various court cases and Government Records Council decisions which constantly shape the landscape of the laws interpreting the Open Public Records Act, and in turn, guide our custodian clients on how to respond to requests that cross their desks every day. Yesterday, the Appellate Division resolved the long-standing question of whether OPRA only required responses to records requests from New Jersey residents. As expected, it does not.
In Sheeler v. Atlantic County, (A-2029-15), the court consolidated cases from Atlantic, Burlington and Cape May counties, where different Judges had interpreted OPRA differently, creating confusion for custodians grappling with whether a response was required when the requestor was a business or resident from another state. The Appellate Division eliminated that confusion, holding that OPRA’s purpose is to make public records open to anyone, regardless of residency.
The phrase “citizens of the state” appears just once in the entire statute, while the body of the Act focuses on the words “person” or “requestor.” Indeed, the statute permits anonymous requests, so a requestor from another state has always been able to hide behind this anonymity to obtain records, without the custodian even reaching the “citizenship” question. We have long cautioned our clients not to be lulled into an interpretation of the statute that would prevent access to non-residents. Doing so could lead to potential denial of access appeals, followed by court decisions costing taxpayers substantial sums not just in defending the appeal, but in prevailing party attorney fees, if the requestor is successful.
Fortunately, the Appellate Division has resolved this difference of opinion among the various trial courts. Given that hundreds of new OPRA requests are filed daily with municipalities, counties, school districts and local authorities, this will certainly not be the last time the Appellate Courts of this State will be called upon to resolve conflicting court decisions on OPRA matters. Parker McCay’s OPRA team stands ready to assist in resolving difficult requests and helping our clients avoid costly public records litigation.
Please contact George Morris and the OPRA team at Parker McCay if you have any questions regarding this decision.
The content of this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion. You should consult a lawyer concerning your specific situation and any specific legal question you may have.