CASE SUMMARY: New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (NJSFA) v. Jeff Carter

Case Name:  New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (NJSFA) v. Jeff Carter
Docket Number:  NJ Supreme Court Docket No. 077097, Appellate A-2810-13T2, Trial Court Docket No. UNN-L-2932-13
County / Vicinage:  Union
Filing Date:  August 15, 2013
Judge:  Chrystal, Lisa F. (at trial level)
Status:  Closed.

 

Overview:

The requestor, NJSFA member Jeff Carter of Franklin Township, Somerset County, asked for financial records of “John Doe,” who is “life member of a volunteer fire company located in Fire District No. 1” in Franklin Township who allegedly “was caught viewing and printing pornographic images . . . on the Fire District’s computers” while Doe served as Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Carter certified that he made his request so that he could “publicize that John Doe was receiving hardship benefits for hardship caused by his own actions.” Instead of denying Carter’s request, the NJSFA filed the lawsuit seeking a declaration that Carter was not entitled to the records requested.

In her January 15, 2014 Opinion and Order, Judge Chrystal granted the NJSFA’s Order to Show Cause finding that under both the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access, John Doe’s interest in privacy outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure. She found that “it is likely that disclosure would impede agency function because it would discourage indigent firemen and their families from applying for much needed aid.”

In a December 18, 2015 published, thus precedential decision, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that:

1. OPRA grants the right to sue only to the records requestor. Thus, a records custodian may not sue a records requestor in order to enforce the custodian’s asserted right to withhold records.

2. Similarly, but for different reasons, a custodian cannot sue a requestor to establish that records are not available to a requestor under the common law right of access.

3. Both OPRA and the common law require disclosure of documents containing the name of a firefighter who applied for financial relief from the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association and its Local relief association and the amount of the relief award. This ruling is based on the specific facts of this case which involved relief payments made to a volunteer firefighter who was fired from his Township job after he “was found to have viewed pornographic images on a fire district computer.” It does not grant access to the names and amounts of relief received by any other relief applicants.

The case will be heard by the NJ Supreme Court.

 
Case Documents:

Answer to Verified Complaint
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B66zM58TlOVKWTl3VUlpZ1B0cHc/view?usp=sharing

Trial Court’s January 15, 2014 Order and Opinion
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B66zM58TlOVKeG0zWnB2bGIxZEE/view?usp=sharing

Appellate Division’s December 18, 2015 Opinion
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B66zM58TlOVKOWd5c2hQMmMtVms/view?usp=sharing

 

Articles / posts:
NJ Appellate Court says only a requestor can sue under OPRA. NJ Supreme Court to hear appeal.
http://njfog.org/2015/12/18/2707/