Rescue Squad Determined Not to be a Public Agency Subject to OPRA

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Plaintiff Fran Brooks sued the Tabernacle Rescue Squad alleging a violation of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right to access. Her complaint was dismissed by the trial judge, who ruled that the Squad did not qualify as a public agency for purposes of OPRA, and, in Brooks v. Tabernacle Rescue Squad, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1584 (App. Div. July 1, 2015), she filed an appeal of that decision.

She had requested “township records” of the Tabernacle Rescue Squad’s reports for drivers of all ambulances and rescue truck for the period of January 1, 2013 to July 31, 2013. The Squad denied the request, stating that it is a non-profit charitable organization 501-C3, created and maintained by volunteer emergency medical technicians, was not created as part of the Township and is not a public agency for purposes of OPRA.

The plaintiff argued that the Squad should qualify as a public agency because of the Township’s substantial financial support of the Squad, coupled with its limited immunity under the Tort Claims Act and its performance of a government function as the Township’s official and exclusive rescue squad. The Squad, however, stressed that it has its own trustees and elected officers, none of whom is appointed by the Township and conducts its activities independent of any control by the municipality. All of its members are volunteers. The Squad conducts its activities subject to its own budget, which is not subject to Township approval.

The trial court judge found the Squad’s formation by private citizens independent of Tabernacle and the Township’s lack of direct control over the leadership or daily operation of the Squad dispositive. He also rejected the argument that the Squad’s performance of a government function is sufficient to qualify it as a public agency under OPRA. Further, he found that no court has held that an organization is a public agency solely because it received substantial government funding.

The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court judge and his reasoning, upholding the dismissal of the complaint. It found that the Squad, having been founded by private individuals and conducting its operations wholly free of municipal control, even though with financial support permitted by statute, cannot be considered a public agency under OPRA. Because the Squad is not a public agency and its volunteer members do not conduct government business, plaintiff was likewise not entitled to documents under the common law.