The Supreme Court of New Jersey has agreed to consider a public records case involving the internal affairs file of a Neptune police officer. The specific issue before the court in Gannett Satellite Information Network, LLC v. Township of Neptune is whether disclosure is required under the common law right of access and whether the “catalyst theory” applies to the award common law suits.
Facts of the Case
In May 2017, Gannett Satellite Information Network, LLC (Gannett), an entity that publishes the Asbury Park Press, submitted a request to the Township of Neptune seeking copies of the Internal Affairs (IA) file of Philip Seidle, who had been a Sergeant in the Township’s Police Department. On June 16, 2015, Seidle shot and killed his ex-wife Tamara, using his service revolver, in the presence of their seven-year-old daughter. Seidle pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was later sentenced to a thirty-year prison term.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) investigated the response of law enforcement to Tamara’s death and issued a report that detailed the Seidles’ history of domestic violence. The MCPO stated that its investigation had “disclosed a critical flaw in the domestic violence policies and procedures that currently exist statewide.” It found “domestic violence incidents” that do not result in the “filing of criminal charges or a temporary restraining order may still call into question the fitness- for-duty of a police officer.” The MCPO added that, “a police officer who has numerous [IA] complaints – either due to internal departmental policy violations or from complaints by citizens – raises a red flag which may warrant a fitness-for-duty evaluation by the agency.” To address these concerns, the MCPO implemented an Early Warning System for all law enforcement agencies in Monmouth County.
Gannett sought access to the IA records pursuant to the common law and OPRA. The Township denied the request, and Gannet filed suit. The trial court determined that the records were exempt from disclosure under OPRA, but Gannett was entitled to the records under the common law. The court also awarded Gannett attorney’s fees.
Appellate Division’s Decision
The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part. It found that the trial court correctly found that Gannett was not entitled to access to Seidle’s IA file pursuant to OPRA; however, it further determined that disclosure was required under the common law right of access. The appeals court also held that the trial court erred in awarding of attorney’s fees to Gannett.
The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that Gannett is entitled to Seidle’s IA file under the common law right of access to public records. As explained by the court, to prevail on a claim for access to a public record under the common law, the party seeking access must establish that: (1) the document is a public record under the common law; (2) the party has an “interest in the subject matter” of the record; and (3) a balancing of the party’s right to access and the State’s interest in non-disclosure favors access.
Like the trial court, the Appellate Division focused on the third factor. It agreed that that “generally, disclosure of IA files would discourage citizens and fellow officers from reporting police misconduct, which would undermine the purposes of the IAPP and also undermine public confidence in the police.” However, it found that “the unique circumstances of this matter tipped the balance in favor of disclosure. As the trial judge noted, the records relate to a horrific crime, in which an off-duty officer shot and killed his wife, with his service revolver, in the presence of their young child. The public has a strong interest in knowing how such an event could have occurred.”
The Appellate Division also found that the trial court correctly determined that the potential harm from disclosure was minimal because much of the information was already public and that any harm from disclosure could be mitigated by redactions that would protect the identity of other officers, complainants, or witnesses.
With regard to attorney’s fees, the Appellate Division found that they were not warranted. As explained by the court, in Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51 (2008), the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether the plaintiff was entitled to attorney’s fees when a government agency voluntarily disclosed records after the plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming a right to access to the records under OPRA and the common law. The Court adopted the “catalyst theory” and held that requestors are “entitled to attorney’s fees under OPRA . . . when they can demonstrate: (1) ‘a factual causal nexus between [the] litigation and the relief ultimately achieved’; and (2) ‘that the relief ultimately secured by [the requestor] had a basis in law.'” The New Jersey Supreme Court then commented that “[t]he parties ha[d] not addressed at length whether the question of attorney’s fees merits different treatment in an action brought under the common law[,]” and that “[a]bsent an apparent, theoretical basis for such a distinction, we conclude that the catalyst theory applies to common law suits as well.”
The Appellate Division went on to note that the parties disagreed over whether the Court’s comment in Mason represents dicta or a definitive holding that attorney’s fees are available to a plaintiff that successfully pursues a common law right of access. “We are required, however, to follow the decisions of the Supreme Court, and in Mason the Court stated that in a case involving the common law right of access, attorneys’ fees may be awarded under the catalyst theory unless there is ‘an apparent, theoretical basis’ for declining to apply that theory,” the court wrote. It ultimately concluded that Gannett is not entitled to an award of fees under the catalyst theory.
Issues Before the NJ Supreme Court
The New Jersey Supreme Court granted on July 15, 2022. The justices agreed to consider the following question: “In this lawsuit seeking police department internal affairs records, was plaintiff entitled to attorneys’ fees and does the catalyst theory apply to a common law right of access claim?”
Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled. Please check back for updates.