Steven Wronko v. Township of Jackson

Earlier this week the Appellate Division rendered an unpublished OPRA decision in the matter of Wronko v. Township of Jackson and Eden, RMC.  An amicus curiae brief was submitted in the matter by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

This was a somewhat standard OPRA suit.  Petitioner sought “copies of all attorney invoices for Jackson Township from January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2015” and “copies of all litigation settlement agreements from January 1, 2010 through December 19, 2015 for Holmdel Township.”

The Opinion states that Defendant Jackson Township denied the request stating it was overly broad as it sought all agreements and all invoices rather than specifying specific matters. Citing to Burnett v. County of Gloucester, petitioner argued that he was entitled to such records but the trial court disagreed. The Appellate Court holding stated it “Agreed with [Petitioner] in every respect. Specifically, the court noted that given the timeframe provided, the requests “identified a specific subject matter with sufficient identifying information [that] were not overly broad even where a custodian was required to search and locate records according to a specific topic area.” The Burnett case itself stated that OPRA requestors may seek any and all settlements, releases, or similar documents for a reasonably specified timeframe. Indeed, there is even a requirement on municipalities that they seek and obtain such documentation even form independent third parties such as insurance companies and attorneys that represented the municipality.  Accordingly, the trial court was reversed and the matter remanded to determine the amount of counsel fees Jackson Township would be required to pay.

This is a fairly straight-forward case and Appellate decision reminding municipalities and those that represent municipalities that the “overly broad” argument is not a failsafe for any request for a batch of documents. This is particularly so when a specific time-frame is sought for the materials. The Court found in this instance that “The request [was for] particularized identifiable government records, namely, correspondence with another government entity, rather than information generally…these permissible requests did not require a custodian to exercise discretion, survey employees, or conduct research; rather, the responsive records were self-evident.”

The above language provides a good test for records custodians and government officials/lawyers in determining whether an overly broad exception can apply. It may also be helpful, given the prevalence of requests for “all settlement agreements/releases” to maintain an active log of same so that the request can be easily disposed of upon receipt.  Scrambling to remember all suits and their dispositions (and where the releases and agreements are stored if off-site) can be tricky in the tight timeframe provided by OPRA. For better or worse, these types of requests are increasingly common and courts seem to be increasingly requiring greater research involvement for a successful “overly broad” OPRA exemption. Wronko v. Township of Jackson merely provides another example of this trend.

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