2015 saw a number of noteworthy developments in OPRA case law. The courts and the GRC issued a few hundred OPRA opinions, on a wide range of issues. The following are the most significant opinions that came out in the past year.
The Appellate Division issued two major precedential opinions, Gilleran and Lyndhurst, dealing with OPRA’s law enforcement and security exemptions. Although the Supreme Court is reviewing both of these cases, it’s unlikely the Court will issue its opinions before 2017, making the Appellate Division opinions binding law for at least the next year.
–Gilleran v. Bloomfield Tp.: The Appellate Division held that the Township should not have denied a request for recordings from a building surveillance video camera. But the real importance of this opinion is that the court recognized that law enforcement interests typically support the confidentiality of such recordings. Also, as explained here, the court said that requests for these videos may be invalid under OPRA’s “substantially disrupt[ive]” provision.
–North Jersey Media v. Lyndhurst: The Appellate Division held that virtually every record connected with a criminal investigation is confidential under OPRA, including police motor vehicle recordings.
Other published appellate opinions:
–A.A. v. Gramiccioni: The Appellate Division held, for the first time, that neither OPRA nor any other law authorizes an OPRA requestor to file an anonymous court complaint. The opinion also contains an analysis of the requirement that OPRA complaints must be verified in accordance with court rules.
–Lagerkvist v. Office of the Governor: This is the Appellate Division’s most recent explanation of what constitutes an invalid research request. In addition, for the first time, the court expressly held that OPRA does not require a records custodian to work with the requestor to turn an invalid request into a proper request that will result in providing the information sought by the requestor.
–Matter of the NJ Firemen’s Ass’n Obligation to Provide Relief Applications: In another case of first impression in New Jersey, the Appellate Division held that a custodian may not file a declaratory judgment action against a requestor concerning whether records may be withheld.
In addition to the above published opinions, the Appellate Division issued several unpublished OPRA opinions that are useful and important, even though they are not considered precedential.
-In NJ 2d Amendment Soc. v. State Police, the Appellate Division upheld the validity of a regulation adopted by the Department of Law and Public Safety which exempts from disclosure under OPRA any information that may reveal the duty assignment of a law enforcement officer.
–Academy Express v. Rutgers: The appellate court rejected an argument often raised by requestors and ruled that a custodian is not obligated to give a detailed description of the records that are withheld in the response to the OPRA request. In addition, the court stated that an OPRA complaint cannot be brought as part of a complaint asserting non-OPRA claims. It also reaffirmed the rule that a request for all correspondence concerning a topic is invalid.
–Shipyard Associates v. Hoboken contains a cogent description of the law governing what constitutes an invalid OPRA request.
The GRC issued two particularly significant decisions.
-In Schultz v. State Police, the GRC determined that autopsy reports are not covered by OPRA’s exemption for criminal investigatory records. This question has never been addressed by the New Jersey courts.
-The GRC also decided another issue yet to be addressed by the courts–whether OPRA covers text messages. As discussed here, it determined that texts fall under the statute’s definition of a “government record,” as information that is stored or maintained electronically. The GRC said that texts are “fundamentally similar” to emails, because they are electronic communications.