The Appellate Division recently issued an opinion that will cause problems for custodians. The court ruled, for the first time, that OPRA’s immediate access provision applies to requests for litigation settlements. Scheeler v. Galloway Tp.
The court reversed a GRC decision which had upheld the denial of a request for the settlement agreement on the ground that the settlement had not been finalized at the time of the request. The document in question was entitled “Release and Settlement Agreement” and apparently consisted simply of the litigant’s release of the Township from all claims he may have against it. The rest of the litigation settlement terms were not in writing, but instead were orally agreed to by the parties’ attorneys.
The court disagreed with the GRC that the litigation had not yet been settled at the time of the request. Based on its conclusion that in fact there was a finalized settlement, the court held that the custodian should have disclosed the release.
Notably, the Appellate Division issued a separate ruling, holding that the release should have been disclosed immediately, under the section of OPRA requiring that immediate access be given to certain information held by public bodies, such as budgets, contracts, bills and employee salaries. The court said that because a release of litigation claims is a contract, this type of document is covered by the “immediate access” requirement.
As a result, even though the custodian provided the release to the requestor within 7 business days, the court held that the custodian unlawfully denied access by not providing it immediately.
No court had ever addressed previously whether a litigation settlement is the type of contract that is subject to OPRA’s “immediate access” section. As I’ll discuss in a future post, I think the Legislature did not intend this statutory provision to apply to settlement agreements.
Although the Scheeler opinion is unpublished, and therefore not binding on other courts, it is binding on the GRC, since the GRC was a party in the case. Consequently, in future cases, the GRC is obligated to hold that a custodian has committed a violation if a request for a settlement agreement is not fulfilled immediately. And as I’ve discussed previously, the GRC takes a hard line on the definition of “immediate access,” so that even a response time of a day or two may be a violation.
I suspect that many custodians will be unable to answer requests for settlement agreements so quickly. Nevertheless, they now face the risk of being penalized by the GRC for violating OPRA in these situations.