The New Jersey Supreme Court clarified two exemptions to the state’s open records act Tuesday in its ruling in Vasil Kovalcik v. Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office.
The court examined the scope and application of two provisions that exempt certain government records from disclosure: one regarding records deemed confidential by a court order and another regarding access to government employee personnel records.
The court held that a denial of a motion to compel does not equate to a court order of confidentiality in relation to the state open records law. It also examined an exception to the personnel-record exemption that allows the release of documents regarding the training and education of a government employee required for his or her job. The court remanded the case to the trial court for further review.
The case stemmed from a criminal investigation into Vasil Kovalcik that ended in police charging him with numerous crimes. Two detectives in the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, Kristin Houck and Jorge Ramos, conducted parts of the investigation.
As a part of pre-trial proceedings in October 2008, Kovalcik filed a motion seeking to compel the Prosecutor’s Office to disclose certain documents related to the two detectives. The requested documents included their curricula vitae in addition to any education classes the two had taken related to interrogation or confessions.
A criminal division judge denied the motion, but, before the decision was formalized in a written order, Kovalcik filed a public records request to the records custodian for Somerset County seeking the same documents sought by court motion. Kovalcik received a response that said there were no documents that fell under his request, but even if there were, they would be shielded from disclosure under the personnel records exemption.
Kovalcik then sued. While records officials maintained they searched for and found no documents pertaining to the request, one administrator eventually found records that were responsive to the request regarding Houck’s training and certification courses, which were turned over to the judge to review them in chambers.
Prosecutors argued the documents were shielded from release under exemptions to the open records law because of a court confidentiality order and because the files related to personnel matters.
The judge did not agree with the prosecutor’s claim that the denial of a motion to compel equated to an order of confidentiality. However, the judge denied Kovalcik’s motion to compel the production of the requested documents, stating they did not fit within the narrow exception to the personnel records exemption.
An appeals court agreed with the trial court that the document in question was not protected by the order of confidentiality exemption. However, the court found the documents were also not exempt for personnel reasons. The court cited three reasons for its ruling: the Prosecutor’s Office fell short of its burden to prove denying access to the records is lawful, the law did not have clear language relating to education and qualifications, and the disclosure of the course list did not infringe on Houck’s privacy rights.
The New Jersey Supreme Court held that a denial of motion to compel does not equate to an order of confidentiality to the purposes of the state open records law.
“In light of that plain language used by the Legislature when it crafted the exemption, there can be no doubt that the mere denial of a motion to compel discovery does not suffice as the sort of protective order contemplated by the state,” the court held.
The court then evaluated the government's’ claim that the personnel-records exemption in the law applied. While personnel records are not subject to the open records act, there are statutory exceptions to this exemption, the court said. One exception includes “data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information.”
The court said records related to Houck’s pre-employment training and education were personnel records, and therefore exempt from disclosure, as long as the detective voluntarily attended courses rather than being required to do so for her job. Any documents regarding specific training or education Houck completed that was required for her employment should be disclosed, the court said.
The court remanded the case back to the trial court in order for the parties to develop a record as to whether Houck's training and certification courses were required or voluntary.