NJ Appeals Court Rules NJSPCA Subject to OPRA

The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA) must comply with the state’s Open Public Records Act, according to the Appellate Division. The decision in Wronko v. New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals highlights that quasi-public organizations often have obligations under OPRA.

Facts of the Case

After the NJSPCA took over an animal shelter in a receivership, plaintiff Collene Wronko sent an OPRA request to the organization requesting information concerning the agency and its shelter. When there was no response, the plaintiff filed a verified complaint and Order to Show Cause (OTSC), seeking a declaration that the NJSPCA was a public agency subject to OPRA and declaring the NJSPCA’s inaction in response to plaintiff’s records request to be an unlawful violation of OPRA. Plaintiff also sought a release of the requested records, attorney’s fees and costs and preservation of the requested records pending resolution of the matter. The NJSPCA opposed the OTSC, arguing that it was not a public agency. NJ Appeals Court Rules NJSPCA Subject to OPRA

As explained by the court, the NJSPCA is “a parent corporation for the purposes of coordinating the functions of county societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and of promoting the interests of, protecting and caring for, and doing any and all things to benefit or that tend to benefit animals.” It is governed by a Board of Trustees that appoints humane law enforcement officers to serve as authorized agents of the organization or of an NJSPCA county society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The NJSPCA is required to “submit quarterly to the Attorney General statistical information concerning its law enforcement activity during that period.”

Based on the above, the trial court ruled that the NJSPCA was subject to OPRA and ordered it to develop a mechanism for responding to records requests. The NJSPCA submitted a proposal that it would charge an hourly labor rate for compiling and producing documents; the charge would be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the volume of documents requested and complexity of the request. The plaintiff objected to any charges, and the parties returned to court.

Finding that plaintiff’s records request was not “beyond the scope of an ordinary demand” even though the NJSPCA had minimal personnel and would have to make specific arrangements to service the request, the judge granted plaintiff’s application and awarded attorney’s fees and costs to plaintiff as the prevailing party. On appeal, the NJSPCA argued that it should be exempt from complying with OPRA requests because it does not receive public funds and, staffed only with volunteers, it lacks the monies and personnel to facilitate the requests.

Appellate Division’s Decision

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court orders compelling NJSPCA to comply with OPRA and awarding plaintiff counsel fees. “Because the NJSPCA is a public agency that receives public funds and performs a traditional government function, we conclude that it is subject to OPRA, and must comply with requests made under the Act,” the court held.

The court first determined that the NJSPCA is a public agency for purposes of OPRA’s disclosure requirements. “The NJSPCA was created by the Legislature and is controlled by the State…. In addition, the NJSPCA performs a government function by assisting state and local governments with the investigation of animal cruelty and enforcement of animal cruelty laws throughout the State,” the court said. “The NJSPCA clearly meets the definition of a public agency under OPRA.”

The Appellate Division next turned to the NJSPCA’s contention that it should not be subject to OPRA because it is not a recipient of public funding. The court rejected the argument, explaining:

While it is true that there is no “line item” in the state budget for the NJSPCA, and it does not receive tax dollars directly, it collects the fines and penalties assessed on violators of animal cruelty laws. N.J.S.A. 4:22-55. The organization also may collect funds by seizing and auctioning animals and vehicles, N.J.S.A. 4:22-53, and by serving as a receiver for animal shelters with animal cruelty violations. N.J.S.A. 4:22-50.1. The Legislature, therefore, has provided a source of funding to the agency through the allocation of fines and penalties assessed on violators of animal cruelty laws.

While the Appellate Division held that OPRA currently applies to the NJSPCA, a new law that takes effect later this year may change the agency’s status. In the wake of allegations of mismanagement, New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation, which has been signed into law, removing the NJSPCA’s enforcement authority with respect to the state’s animal cruelty laws.

For more information about the court’s decision in Wronko v. New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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