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Court sides with paper in bid to access county settlement

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Asbury Park Press reports it has won an appeal for details of a 2007 sexual harrassment settlement between Monmouth County and a…

The Asbury Park Press reports it has won an appeal for details of a 2007 sexual harrassment settlement between Monmouth County and a local Department of Public Works and Engineering official.

Both the employee and the county had agreeed to keep the settlement confidential, according to the appellate opinion released Tuesday, but that particular provision was not part of the court filing. The paper and a local open-government advocate were subsequently denied access to the settlement documents, and both sued under the state Open Public Records Act.

At the trial level in Asbury Park Press v. County of Monmouth and Carol Melnick, Superior Court Judge Jamie Perri ruled that a sexual harrassment complaint does not fall within the Act’s definition of a "government record." Furthermore, the judge said, in this case the plaintiff’s privacy outweighed the public interest in airing the details of the settlement.

In Tuesday’s written opinion, Appellate Division Judge Victor Ashrafi favored a narrow reading of a section of the Act that exempts from release the details of a "sexual harrassment complaint filed with a public employer." The Monmouth County plaintiff filed her complaint in court, Ashrafi wrote, not with the local government, so that exemption does not apply.

Finally, Ashrafi found, "the parties’ [confidentiality] agreement cannot override the public’s right of access under OPRA." The court concluded:

 

[T]he Legislature struck a balance in OPRA between the competing interests of privacy and open government. It excluded from the reach of OPRA those complaints of sexual harassment that are filed only with the public employer and do not enter into a public forum, such as the courts. The Legislature did not undertake to assure privacy when an alleged victim of sexual harassment chooses to seek redress in the courts.

 

The county was ordered to make a copy of the settlement available to the requesting parties within a week.