Most public employers and employees in the State of New Jersey are familiar with OPRA, or the Open Public Records Act. It is the State law that governs the public’s access to government records. But what happens when a case involving a public entity is settled in a foreign – or non-New Jersey State – court? Does OPRA still govern access to the settlement?
This is the issue recently addressed by the Superior Court of New Jersey in Evening Journal Ass’n v. City of Bayonne, Dkt. No. L-2013-17 (Super. Ct., Law Div. 2018). By way of background, a civil complaint was filed against the City of Bayonne in NJ Federal District Court by citizens claiming that the City’s police, when making an arrest, used excessive force and committed an assault. The City and the citizens settled that case. Thereafter, the Jersey Journal sought access to the settlement under OPRA. The City refused, claiming that the settlement was sealed under order of the Federal District Court. The Jersey Journal sued the City in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, seeking access to the settlement.
The issue addressed by the Law Division was whether the court, under OPRA, could release documents sealed under federal court order. The court questioned whether settlements entered into by public entities in foreign jurisdictions must provide notice to the foreign court and the parties that the settlement is subjected to disclosure under OPRA.
In addressing these issues, the court held that when a settlement is entered into by a New Jersey public entity in a foreign jurisdiction, the settlement must inform the parties and the court that the settlement may be subjected to disclosure under OPRA. The Plaintiff’s OPRA request was granted except for personal identifiers and settlement terms for the infant parties.
So when entering into a settlement with a public entity - whether in a New Jersey State court or a foreign court - be aware that the settlement will be subjected to OPRA, and the settlement must advise a foreign court and the parties accordingly. If you have any questions, the experienced attorneys at the Zazzali Firm stand ready to answer any questions you may have and, if necessary, help you to enforce your rights.