NJ Supreme Court Rules Public Auction Records Subject to OPRA

In William J. Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) compels the disclosure of documents including the names and addresses of persons who successfully bid at an auction of public property. The court’s decision is particularly noteworthy because it establishes a new test for balancing transparency and privacy with respect to OPRA requests.

tomloel (depositphoto.com)

Facts of the Case

An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts.

Brennan subsequently filed a complaint maintaining that he was entitled to the requested records under OPRA and the common law right of access. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and its custodian of records filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The court analyzed defendants’ privacy argument under the factors outlined in Doe v. Poritz, 142 N.J. 1 (1995). TheDoefactors call for an examination of:

(1) the type of record requested; (2) the information it does or might contain; (3) the potential for harm in any subsequent nonconsensual disclosure; (4) the injury from disclosure to the relationship in which the record was generated; (5) the adequacy of safeguards to prevent unauthorized disclosure; (6) the degree of need for access; and (7) whether there is an express statutory mandate, articulated public policy, or other recognized public interest militating toward access.

Based on its analysis, the court found that the buyers’ privacy interest was “limited,” in that most names and addresses are already publicly available from various sources. Likewise, because the information was not “private,” the court found that the potential for harm was “relatively miniscule.” The court noted that plaintiff sought names and addresses, not social security numbers. As a result, any concern that disclosure would create a security risk for the buyers was “only speculative.”

The Appellate Division reversed. The panel weighed the Doefactors and concluded that the buyers had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their names and addresses because the purchase of sports memorabilia could reveal that an individual is a collector and “could make the bidders targets of theft.” Finally, the panel observed that the interest in government accountability would not be served by disclosure. For similar reasons, the Appellate Division found plaintiff was not entitled to disclosure under the common law.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court of New Jersey unanimously reversed. “OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote on behalf of the panel.

In reaching its decision, the state’s highest court determined that “courts are not required to analyze Doe factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists.” According to the court, “a party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”

In support of its conclusion, the court highlighted that OPRA states it is only “when disclosure . . . would violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy” that a public agency must safeguard records from public access. It also noted that in Asbury Park Press v. County of Monmouth, for example, the court saw “no reason to analyze the Doe factors” when disclosure “would not violate any reasonable expectation of privacy.”

With regard to the facts of the case, the court went on to hold that the defendants failed to present a colorable claim in support of their privacy argument. As Chief Justice Rabner explained, “It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property—including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property—will remain private.” Rabner added: “OPRA does not contain a broad-based exception for the disclosure of names and home addresses that appear in government records.”

Chief Justice Rabner also highlighted the public nature of auction. “The bidders knew they were participating in a public auction” and the “participants knew that they were bidding on seized property forfeited to the government,” he wrote. “Forfeiture proceedings and public auctions of forfeited property are not conducted in private.”

For more information about the OPRA decisionin William J. Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Officeor the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci & Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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