No. A-68-15 (077097)

Aug. 3, 2017 (Date Decided)

Judge Solomon

FOR APPELLANT: John C. Gillespie and George M. Morris (Parker McCay, attorneys; Stacy L. Moore, Jr., on the briefs)

FOR RESPONDENT: C.J. Griffin (Pashman Stein, attorneys; C.J. Griffin and Walter M. Luers, of counsel and on the briefs)

The New Jersey Firemen’s Association appealed from the order of the appellate division that reversed the ruling of the trial court and held that records of financial relief payments made by the association to one of its members, John Doe, were subject to disclosure under OPRA. Plaintiff Jeff Carter submitted a request to the association for Doe’s financial relief documentation, seeking to publicize the fact that Doe had been charged with endangering the welfare of a child, had consequently resigned from the fire department, and therefore should have been ineligible to receive hardship benefits necessitated by his own actions.

The association denied the request, ruling that relief applicants had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Plaintiff responded that, because he did not seek privileged or exempt information, the association was obligated to release the records with appropriate redactions. The association thereafter filed the present declaratory judgment complaint, seeking to establish its obligation to disclose the financial records requested by plaintiff. Plaintiff opposed, arguing that the declaratory judgment action was barred by OPRA, which vested the right to institute proceedings solely in the requestor. The trial court denied plaintiff’s argument and granted the association’s order to show cause, ruling that OPRA’s privacy exception barred release of relief applications and that the common law did not require disclosure.

The appellate division reversed, ruling that OPRA provided the exclusive remedy for public records requests, and that the legislature gave requestors the exclusive right to seek review of OPRA decisions. The appellate division further ruled that neither OPRA’s privacy exemption nor common law privacy concerns could shield disclosure of Doe’s payment records.

On appeal, the court reversed the decision of the appellate division. The court first held that while the Declaratory Judgment Act provided broad access to adjudicate controversies that had not yet reached the stage warranting coercive remedy, the association erred in filing a DJA action because its denial of access triggered OPRA’s procedure for review of an agency denial. Nevertheless, the court ruled on the merits of the issue, determining that the association properly denied access to Doe’s records. The court held that the interests of public disclosure were outweighed by Doe’s privacy interest in the records.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Albin argued that OPRA governed a records request regardless of whether the records custodian denied or did not respond to the request, and thus a public entity could not invoke the Declaratory Judgment Act to avoid the dictates of OPRA.