The new year has started with issuance by the Appellate Division of an important opinion that addresses a longstanding problematic OPRA question–whether the statute requires public bodies to provide an explanation of the reasons underlying an employee’s separation from employment. The court held that OPRA does not require a public body to disclose information about the circumstances surrounding the separation; this means, for example, where the employee has resigned, the public is not entitled to learn his motivation for doing so. Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Ocean County Prosecutor.
The claim that public bodies must provide an explanation of the reasons why an individual is no longer employed is based on one of the statute’s exceptions to the personnel records exemption, which states that “the date of separation and the reason therefor” must be disclosed. Requestors often argue (as the requestor did in this case) that this phrase means that it is insufficient for a public body to indicate simply that an employee “resigned,” “retired,” or “was discharged.” They contend that OPRA requires the employer to reveal the “real” reasons an employee was separated, even if there are no records reflecting these reasons.
The Appellate Division rejected this argument as contrary to the statute’s plain language and intent. It held that the Prosecutor’s Office complied with OPRA’s requirement by indicating that the employee in question had resigned. The court refused to read into the statute the obligation to create records containing an explanation of the reasons underlying the resignation.
This is the first time an appellate court has addressed this issue. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), the opinion is not a published, precedential opinion.