Rutgers University recently prevailed in a lawsuit alleging violations of the Open Public Records Act and the common law right of access. The Appellate Division’s decision in Academy Express LLC v. Rutgers, The State Univ. highlights the confusion that can arise when OPRA challenges become entangled with public contract disputes.
The Facts of the Case
Plaintiff Academy Express, LLC (Academy) failed to win a contract with defendant Rutgers University (Rutgers) to operate the school’s bus system. Thereafter, Academy submitted a request to Rutgers under OPRA, which sought:
“[A]ll documents, including, but not limited to bid evaluations and/or scoring sheets, used and/or relied upon in consideration of all bids for, and the award of the contract under, [the RFP]. Additionally, please provide a copy of any correspondence between Rutgers and First Transit in relation to [the RFP] and the award of the contract under [the RFP].”
In its response, Rutgers separated the OPRA request into three categories: bid proposals, evaluations and correspondence. With regard to the request for bid proposals, Rutgers provided the proposals submitted by Academy and First Transit, Inc., the other bidder and ultimate contract recipient. Rutgers redacted financial information submitted by First Transit pursuant to the exemption of “proprietary, commercial or financial information obtained from any source” from the definition of government records subject to disclosure.
With regard to the request for evaluative material, Rutgers cited the exemption of “inter-agency or intra-agency advisory, consultative, or deliberative material” from the definition of government records. In addressing the request for correspondence, Rutgers stated, “[a] blanket request for a class of various documents is not a request for specific identifiable documents, and a custodian is not required to conduct research to locate records potentially responsive to a request.” After Academy renewed its request, the University ultimately provided 197 pages of documents as well as the RFP and a handout from First Transit’s presentation of its proposal.
In an effort to force Rutgers to set aside the contract, Academy filed suit against Rutgers. In addition to its numerous public contract claims, Academy also asserted violations of OPRA and the common law right of access. The Trial Court granted summary judgment to Academy, finding Rutgers had violated OPRA and its common law disclosure obligation. It found that Rutgers “properly withheld access to advisory, consultative, or deliberative material,” and also properly withheld First Transit’s proprietary data. However, it concluded that the University violated the public records law because it had not described the withheld documents sufficiently. Rutgers then appealed.
The Court’s Decision
The Appellate Division concluded that the Trial Judge erred in finding that Rutgers violated OPRA and the common law right of access. Accordingly, it reversed the order granting summary judgment to Academy on those claims.
As for the Trial Judge’s finding that Rutgers failed to reasonably describe the redaction of First Transit’s proprietary information, the Appellate Division found the record belied the conclusion. It highlighted that Rutgers identified the exemption asserted and the specific pages of First Transit’s proposal that were redacted. The Appeals Court further noted that “the Court did not cite authority that supports the principle that, notwithstanding the proper withholding of a document, a perceived shortcoming in the description of what was properly withheld would be sufficient to find a violation of OPRA.”
With regard to Rutgers’ failure to clearly articulate which correspondence was withheld, the Appeals Court also concluded that the standard applied by the Trial Judge exceeded that required by OPRA. As explained by the Court:
The Court’s finding that Rutgers violated OPRA regarding this request was based upon its failures to conduct such a search and “articulate clearly which documents were withheld.” Plainly, a requirement to identify what documents were “withheld” with such particularity would oblige the custodian of records to conduct a search on a scale not contemplated by OPRA.
In reaching its decision, the Court also noted that the fact that additional documents were produced in response to discovery requests during the litigation of other claims has no relevance to a determination as to whether documents were wrongfully withheld under OPRA. “Academy’s argument highlights the confusion caused by the fact its OPRA claim was permitted to proceed with the amalgam of claims alleged in its complaint as opposed to the summary fashion required by Rule 4:67-1(a),” the Appeals Court stated.
For more information about the Court’s OPRA decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.