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Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Supreme Court of New Jersey

Date Filed: April 2, 2021

Update: On March 7, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s ruling and clarified that the officer’s settlement agreement is, in fact, a “government record” to which the state’s Open Public Records Act applies, triggering the county’s duty to redact any confidential personnel information and promptly disclose the remainder of the record. (The court cited the Reporters Committee’s friend-of-the-court brief in its opinion.)

Background: After a Cumberland County Jail corrections officer was accused of sexually abusing a detainee in 2017, county officials said that they had charged the officer with a disciplinary infraction leading to his resignation. However, in reality, the officer entered into a settlement agreement with the County that permitted him to retire in good standing and take his pension.

Libertarians for Transparent Government filed a public records request for the officer’s settlement agreement. When the county responded by claiming that the files were exempt from disclosure under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the nonprofit group sued.

The trial court ruled that the separation agreement could be released to the public with certain personnel information redacted. But the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division disagreed, holding that OPRA’s requirement to redact exempt information while releasing as much as possible — known as a segregability mandate — did not apply to the requested documents because the entire records were personnel records that could be shielded from disclosure. Libertarians for Transparent Government appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Our Position: The Supreme Court of New Jersey should reverse the Appellate Division’s decision to withhold the agreement from disclosure.

  • Segregability mandates are cornerstones of public records laws, including OPRA; the Appellate Division erred in ignoring OPRA’s segregability mandate.
  • Access to settlement agreements like the one at issue here enables journalists to inform the public about the conduct of public institutions and employees.

Bruce S. Rosen of McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, & Carvelli represented the Reporters Committee and 13 other media organizations in this friend-of-the-court brief.

Quote: “[A]ccess to settlement agreements between public employees and government agencies provides for oversight of local government, allows the press and the public to learn about a public employee’s terms of departure from government  employment, and fosters accountability of public institutions.”

Related: In 2019, the Reporters Committee and a coalition of 16 media organizations urged the New Jersey Supreme Court to order the New Jersey State Police to reveal the name of an officer fired for “racially offensive behavior.” In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of Libertarians for Transparent Government, attorneys for the media coalition argued that the information requested by the nonprofit should be released because OPRA “explicitly requires disclosure of a state trooper’s name, title, ‘date of separation and the reason therefor.’”

The Reporters Committee tracks open records and open meetings laws in every state. To learn more about our work in this area and to see what public records exemptions look like in your area, check out our Open Government Guide.

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