NJ Court Expands OPRA Access to Settlements Involving Public Entities

In Evening Journal Ass’n v. City of Bayonne & Robert F. Sloan, a New Jersey judge held that sealed settlements involving public entities may be subject to disclosure under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). NJ Court Expands OPRA Access to Settlements Involving Public Entities

Facts of the Case

The OPRA case sprung from a civil lawsuit filed against the City of Bayonne and several of its police officers in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The suit alleged that the police used excessive force to restrain Brandon Walsh and that they assaulted members of his family, including two minors and a disabled person, by dousing them with pepper spray. The parties ultimately settled the suit. 

On March 27, 2017, the Jersey Journalsent Bayonne an OPRA request for “the terms of the settlement agreement between Brandon Walsh & Kathy Walsh and the Bayonne Police Department – civil action No. 2:14-cv-7186.” Bayonne denied the request, citing (among other reasons) that it was sealed under a federal court order.

The Evening Journal Association, which publishes the Jersey Journal, filed suit. It contended that Bayonne’s refusal to provide the settlement agreement violated OPRA and the common law right of access to public records. The Evening Journal Association asked the court to determine that: Bayonne’s refusal to release the settlement agreement was illegal;  to compel Bayonne to release the agreement; to pay plaintiff’s legal fees and costs; and to pay a civil penalty under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-11.

NJ Court’s Decision

The court granted the plaintiff’s OPRA request for the federal court settlement documents. “This court holds that when a settlement with a New Jersey public entity is made in another jurisdiction that the settlement documents shall inform the parties and the court in that jurisdiction that the settlement may be subject to disclosure under OPRA,” Hudson County Superior Court Judge Daniel D’Alessandro wrote.

In reaching his decision, Judge D’Alessandro highlighted that “[t]here is no identical case law to guide the court’s analysis when a settlement is sealed by a federal court order.” However, he emphasized that public policy considerations strongly favored disclosure.

“A government entity cannot shield itself from public scrutiny by rotely sealing settlements,” the judge wrote. “The public has a right to know that settlements are not borne of reckless judgment, collusion, conflicts of interest or corruption.”

In light of the court’s decision, New Jersey municipalities should be aware that settlements in “another” jurisdiction, including federal court, may be subject to OPRA. In addition, such a settlement should inform the court and the parties accordingly.

For more information about the court’s decision in Evening Journal Ass’n v. City of Bayonne & Robert F. Sloanor the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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