In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey opened the door for records custodians to go on the offensive in response to requests under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). In In the Matter of the New Jersey Firemen’s Association Obligation to Provide Relief Applications Under the Open Public Records Act, the Court held that OPRA limits the right to institute a suit to a requestor whose public records request has been denied. However, its decision suggests that before an OPRA request is denied, an agency has a justiciable controversy that could potentially resolved by a declaratory judgment action (DJA).
Facts of the Case
On July 15, 2013, Jeff Carter electronically filed a request, under OPRA and the common law, for records pertaining to an application for relief by John Doe, a man associated with the Millstone Valley Fire Department, to the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (Association). The Association denied the request, maintaining that the information Carter requested should not be subject to disclosure under OPRA because it would violate an applicant’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
On August 15, 2013, the Association filed a verified complaint for declaratory judgment, along with a proposed order to show cause, to compel Carter to show cause why the final relief sought in the verified complaint should not be entered. It specifically sought an order “declaring that individual relief applications are of such a private nature that the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association or the local relief association shall be prevented from acknowledging the existence of individual applications and prohibited from releasing the same under . . . the Open Public Records Act.”
The trial court did not expressly grant the request for declaratory judgment. However, it did hold that OPRA’s privacy clause barred release. On appeal, the Appellate Division held that a records custodian may not bring a declaratory judgment action against a record requestor to enforce its right to withhold records.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “OPRA does not, in all instances, prohibit a public entity from instituting proceedings under the Declaratory Judgment Act (DJA) to determine whether records are subject to disclosure,” the state’s highest court held.
In reaching its decision, the Court discussed the intersection of the two statutes. It highlighted that the “DJA provides broad access to our courts as a means by which rights, obligations and status may be adjudicated in cases involving a controversy that has not yet reached the stage at which either party may seek a coercive remedy.” Meanwhile, “OPRA limits access to the courts by conferring the right to initiate a suit only upon the requestor, after a public agency’s denial of access.”
The Court further held that a specific statutory provision dealing with a particular subject prevails over a general provision. “[S]ection 6 of OPRA’s special procedure for review of an agency’s denial must prevail over the general DJA statute,” Justice Solomon wrote. “Accordingly, after an agency has denied a request, section 6 is triggered, and only the requestor may seek judicial review of the agency’s decision.”
The Court further held that a specific statutory provision dealing with a particular subject prevails over a general provision. “[S]ection 6 of OPRA’s special procedure for review of an agency’s denial must prevail over the general DJA statute,” Justice Solomon explained. “Accordingly, after an agency has denied a request, section 6 is triggered, and only the requestor may seek judicial review of the agency’s decision.”
Although the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision that a records custodian may never bring a declaratory judgment action against a record requestor, the justices did not squarely address whether a public entity may file a pre-denial declaratory judgment action when confronted with an unsettled question that has not been litigated before.
For more information about the New Jersey Supreme Court’s OPRA ruling or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.