The New Jersey high court ruled Thursday that case records handled at public law school clinics are not considered public records because in dealing with private clients, the clinics do not conduct "official government business" and releasing the records may discourage people from seeking the clinics’ services.
Reversing an Appellate Division judgment, the high court concluded that the Rutgers Environmental Litigation Clinic, a clinical legal education program at Rutgers Law School-Newark, is not required to disclose “client-related documents or clinical case files,” or “information about the development and management of litigation” under the state Open Public Records Act.
The clinic, which provides free legal assistance to clients on environmental matters, represented clients involved in a lawsuit over the development of an outlet mall. The plaintiff filed a records request for communications between the clinic and another party's counsel.
The Court noted that in general, Rutgers University and its two law schools are required to disclose records about public funding for clinical programs because they are classified as "public agency" under the law and are therefore subject to records requests under the Act.
“Clinical legal programs, though, do not perform any government functions. They conduct no official government business and do not assist in any aspect of State or local government. Instead, they teach law students how to practice law and represent clients,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the opinion. “As a result, we do not see how it would further the purposes of (Open Public Records Act) to allow public access to documents related to clinic cases.”
The Court said the consequences of making private clients' legal records public “are likely to harm the operation of public law clinics, and, by extension, the legal profession and the public.”
According to the opinion, access to the records would make the clinical training less like the actual practice of law because “people in need of legal assistance might hesitate to use a public law school clinic out of fear that their records could be disclosed; clients might be reluctant to communicate freely with their counsel; and outside law firms might refrain from working with clinics on particular matters.”
The senior director of the Office of Media Relations at Rutgers, Greg Trevor, said the university is “pleased that the court interpreted the statute in a manner that recognized the academic environment in which this case arose.”
The clinic began representing an organization in 2004 that opposed the plan of Sussex Commons Associates, LLC, to develop an outlet mall.
Sussex Commons filed a lawsuit against another company, Chelsea Property Group, for allegedly tortiously interfering with attempts to secure tenants for the proposed mall, and later named the clinic’s clients in the complaint as co-conspirators. Sussex Commons sought 18 categories of records under the Act from the clinic to learn of any communications between Chelsea’s counsel and the clinic.
When Rutger’s Custodian of Records denied the requests, Sussex Commons filed a lawsuit against the university, the clinic and the records custodian.
Sussex Commons' attorney Kevin Kelly said the high court made a policy decision that is very limited, and it only applies to the clinic's work product.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· New Jersey – Open Government Guide: Open Records
· New Jersey – Open Government Guide: R. School and university records.