N.J. Supreme Court Rules that OPRA Requires Disclosure of Settlement Agreements with Public Employees

Co-Written by: Becky Batista, Law Clerk.

On March 7, 2022, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Appellate Division in Libertarians and Transparent Government v. Cumberland County and determined that a settlement agreement between a former corrections officer and his employer, Defendant Cumberland County (“County”) is subject to disclosure under the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”).

Plaintiff sought a settlement agreement wherein the former County corrections officer admitted to “improper fraternization” with two female inmates and bringing contraband into the jail. Plaintiff requested this agreement and specific information about the officer’s separation of employment pursuant to OPRA. The County rejected the request, claiming it was exempt from disclosure as a personnel record. In lieu of the actual settlement agreement, the County provided Plaintiff with the reason for the officer’s separation of employment in writing. The reason given was inaccurate, which prompted Plaintiff to file suit in Superior Court. The trial court agreed with Plaintiff and ordered the release of the settlement agreement with redactions.  The Appellate Division reversed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Division and agreed with Plaintiff. The Court required disclosure of the settlement agreement with appropriate redactions. OPRA grants the public access to government records unless it is exempt from disclosure under the statute. The Court reasoned that redactions must be made to parts of a document that are exempt from public access before disclosing a government record. Under section 10 of OPRA, most personnel records are exempt, but the statute provides three exemptions to consider. Here, the Court focused on the first exemption, which expressly states that “an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be government record.”

The Court recognized that part of the settlement agreement that Plaintiff sought contains information covered by section 10’s first exemption and noted that records which contain details specified in section 10’s first exemption must be made available after appropriate redactions. The Court stated, “Without access to actual documents in cases like this, the public can be left with incomplete or incorrect information. . . . [A]ccess to public records fosters transparency, accountability and candor.”

Public employers must be mindful of this ruling, as they cannot withhold the entirety of a settlement agreement entered with one of their employees.

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