Appellate Division Confirms that Personal Information on OPRA Requests Is Protected from Public Disclosure
Apr 7, 2017 | Written by: Share|
The Appellate Division recently upheld a trial court’s determination that telephone numbers, home addresses, and email addresses of OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requestors could be redacted in response to a request for public documents. Wolosky v. Somerset Cty., et al., Docket No. A-1024-15T4 (March 30, 2107).
The Plaintiff, Jesse Wolosky (the “Plaintiff”), had requested, pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, copies of all OPRA requests received by Somerset County (the “County”) between February 15, 2015 and the date of the request. The County responded by providing fifty-four OPRA requests and redacted the telephone numbers, home addresses, and email addresses of the requestors. The County asserted that such information was redacted because it was private and confidential information exempt from disclosure. The Plaintiff filed a verified complaint in the Law Division seeking disclosure of the redacted information. The trial court held that the County did not violate OPRA by redacting the personal information. The Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s decision.
With regard to Plaintiff’s contention that OPRA required the disclosure of the telephone numbers, home addresses, and email addresses, the Appellate Division found that “a public agency has a responsibility and an obligation to safeguard from public access a citizen’s personal information with which it has been entrusted when disclosure would violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1. When an OPRA request involves private information, the public agency must consider the seven factors set forth in Burnett v. Cty. of Bergen, 198 N.J. 408 (2007):
- the type of record requested; (2) the information it does or might contain; (3) the potential for harm in any subsequent nonconsensual disclosure; (4) the injury from disclosure to the relationship in which the record was generated; (5) the adequacy of safeguards to prevent unauthorized disclosure; (6) the degree of need for access; and (7) whether there is an express statutory mandate, articulated public policy, or other recognized public interest militating toward access.
The Appellate Division found that all seven factors weighed “in favor of nondisclosure.” The Court continued that the personal information does not relate to the “core concern” of OPRA, which is public access to government records. Moreover, the Court noted that the OPRA request form did not put citizens on notice that their personal information could be subject to disclosure or advise that citizens can submit a request anonymously.
With regard to the Plaintiff’s contention that he was entitled to disclosure of the requested private information pursuant to the common law right of access, the Appellate Division also found that privacy interests outweighed the Plaintiff’s right to access. When analyzing whether privacy concerns outweigh a common law right to access, courts utilize the balancing factors set forth in Keddie v. Rutgers, 148 N.J. 49, 50 (1997):
- the records must be common-law public documents; (2) the person seeking access must establish an interest in the subject matter of the material; and (3) the citizen's right to access must be balanced against the State's interest in preventing disclosure. (Citations omitted).
The Appellate Division noted that the Plaintiff had not displayed a strong interest in obtaining the private information. The only interest articulated by the Plaintiff was his assertion that he is a “government activist who routinely files OPRA requests” and that he “is interested in identifying the government records other citizens have requested, and contacting those individuals” if he so desires “to determine the records the government agency has produced.” The Appellate Division found this argument unconvincing.
This holding clarifies specifically what information on an OPRA request form must be subject to public disclosure. Additionally, this holding could be applied to other documents on which citizens’ private information appears.
Tara A. St. Angelo, Esq. concentrates her practice primarily in the areas of municipal and land use law. Contact Ms. St. Angelo at Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC at 908-735-5161 or via email.
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