The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court recently ruled that the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association is a “public agency “ under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). The case is Paff v. New Jersey State Firemen’s Association.
The Facts of the Case
In September 2011, the plaintiff, a life member of the Association, requested access to pension records of the Association’s executive committee members, and bills for legal services the Association received in March 2011. The Association responded it was not a “public agency” and therefore was not subject to OPRA requirements.
Although the Association provided plaintiff some of the requested documents based on his membership status, it did not provide an OPRA form and refused access to the individual pension records of the executive committee. Plaintiff subsequently filed a verified complaint against the Association, alleging that it failed to respond timely to his document request; failed to have a required request form and designated records custodian; and violated OPRA by denying access to records.
The Court’s Decision
The court concluded that the Association’s formation, structure, and function render it a public agency under OPRA. The panel noted that the Association owes its existence to state law, which authorized its creation, granted it powers, including powers over local associations, and barred the creation of a competing state association.
The court further highlighted that the Association is the direct recipient of substantial revenues generated from specific taxes imposed on insurance premiums. “The management of these revenues and expenditures — and the management of the accumulated assets exceeding $100 million — is an issue of public interest that OPRA was intended to address,” the justices concluded.
As further evidence that the Association is a public agency, the court pointed to the its other government functions, including providing death benefits and regulating local associations. Citing to the case in which the New Jersey League of Municipalities was deemed a public agency, the court concluded that the Association is “used to achieve an end or purpose,” of the State, or is “[a] means . . . through which a function [of the State] . . . is accomplished.”
According, the court found that the Association, as an independent State instrumentality, is a public agency whose records are subject to inspection under OPRA.
For more information about this case or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.