A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that the Open Public Records Act does not require a public agency to provide a detailed disclosure of the reasons for an employee’s resignation. But the court also ruled that a records request concerning an employee’s separation should prompt a search of all the agency’s files, not merely the employee’s own personnel file, and that the agency should summarize its search efforts in an affidavit, according to the appeals court ruling.
The Appellate Division ruled Wednesday that a trial judge correctly refused to find the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in violation of OPRA for its response to a request for records about the separation of a particular employee, who was identified as John Doe in court documents. The prosecutor’s office disclosed that the employee in question resigned, and provided the effective date, but it did not respond to a request for the reason for his resignation.
A group called Libertarians for a Transparent Government, which sought the documents, said it had learned that Doe failed a drug test. The group asserted in a letter to the prosecutor’s office that it deemed the initial response incomplete, and stated that the group had learned that Doe’s resignation was compelled by threat of adverse action if he did not resign. The libertarian group said it was entitled to more information about the employee’s resignation, such as whether he resigned voluntarily or under threat of adverse action.
The prosecutor’s office responded that it was not required to create a record or supply information characterizing Doe’s resignation as voluntary or otherwise.
The requester group filed suit and an Ocean County judge rejected its assertion that it was entitled to a more detailed statement of the reason for Doe’s separation.
On appeal, Judges Carmen Messano, Allison Accurso and Francis Vernoia agreed. They noted that personnel records are exempt from disclosure under OPRA with a few exceptions, including an employee’s name, title, position, length of service, date of separation and the reason for separation.
The plaintiff argued that those exceptions dictate that more information should be provided about the terms of Doe’s separation. It claimed that the statute required the prosecutor’s office to explain the reason for Doe’s resignation, even if that information did not exist in a document.
Messano, Accurso and Vernoia found that the plain language of OPRA did not require the prosecutor’s office to investigate and disclose Doe’s reason for resigning.
“Although we are mindful that under OPRA any limitation on the right of access shall be construed in favor of the public’s right to access, we are convinced the plain language of the first exception does not support plaintiff’s assertion that the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office was obligated to provide information concerning the circumstances surrounding Doe’s decision to resign or his motivation for doing so,” the panel said.
The appeals court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that its OPRA request should not be limited to documents in Doe’s personnel file. It remanded for the prosecutor’s office to conduct “a reasonable and thorough search of its agency records” to see if anything else fits the plaintiff’s request. The court also ordered the prosecutor’s office to provide an affidavit describing the steps taken to fulfill the request, the results of the search and a statement of the agency’s document retention policy and how it might have impacted the plaintiff’s search.
Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor John Tassini represented the defendant.
CJ Griffin of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in Hackensack, New Jersey, who represented the plaintiff, said she was “very happy with” the court’s requirement that the prosecutor’s office cast a wider net for documents. But her request for information about Doe’s reason for quitting was “a theory soundly rooted in law,” despite the court’s rejection of it.
Griffin said the drug test report about Doe was “concerning” because he was an employee of the evidence room at the prosecutor’s office, which would allow him to come in contact with narcotics of all kinds. She said that given the sensitivity of his position, the public had a right to know if his resignation was part of a “gentleman’s agreement.”
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said Griffin’s suggestion of a “gentleman’s agreement” was “baseless and unfounded,” but otherwise declined to comment.