Appellate Division Limits Attorneys’ Fees in OPRA Case

By:  Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

On November 27, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division in Kennedy v. Montclair Center Corporation Business Improvement District issued an unpublished decision in which it determined that the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) does not entitle a plaintiff to attorneys’ fees after the public agency satisfied his document request.

Scott Kennedy made an OPRA request to the Montclair Center Corporation Business Improvement District (“Montclair Center”). Not having received an adequate response, Kennedy filed suit against the Montclair Center alleging that it had no OPRA custodian, had no OPRA request form, and charged excessive copying costs in violation of OPRA. After the lawsuit was filed, the Montclair Center provided the requested documents to Kennedy but maintained its position that it was not a public agency subject to OPRA. In a separate action decided in 2014, the Appellate Division ruled that the Montclair Center was a public agency subject to OPRA.[1]

On remand, the trial court addressed the issue of attorneys’ fees. Kennedy argued that he was a prevailing party entitled to attorneys’ fees for both receiving the documents from the Montclair Center and for obtaining a decision from the Appellate Division that the Montclair Center was a public agency. The trial court disagreed and only awarded Kennedy counsel fees through the receipt of the documents. Kennedy then appealed to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division disagreed with Kennedy and affirmed the trial court. In analyzing N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, the Appellate Division reasoned that the fee-shifting provision of OPRA only applies to successful challenges regarding access to public records. Further, the right to counsel fees only belongs to an OPRA requestor. The Appellate Division explained that once a party receives full access to requested documents, the party is no longer considered a requestor. In short, a party that chooses to pursue additional relief after obtaining access, even if the relief sought is under OPRA, is no longer an OPRA requestor. Thus, when Kennedy pursued his lawsuit against the Montclair Center after it provided him with the documents, he was no longer a requestor entitled to counsel fees.

[1] Kennedy v. Montclair Ctr. Corp. Bus. Improvement Dist., 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1654 (App. Div. June 24, 2014)