NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-1661-18T2
TRANSPARENT GOVERNMENT, APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION
a NJ Nonprofit Corporation,
September 4, 2020
Plaintiff-Respondent, APPELLATE DIVISION
CUMBERLAND COUNTY and
BLAKE HETHERINGTON in her
official capacity as Custodian of
Records for Cumberland County,
Argued November 13, 2019 - Decided September 4, 2020
Before Judges Fisher, Accurso and Gilson.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey,
Law Division, Cumberland County, Docket No.
Melissa D. Strickland, Assistant County Counsel,
argued the cause for appellants (Theodore E. Baker,
County Counsel, attorney; Melissa D. Strickland, on
Michael J. Zoller argued the cause for respondent
(Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, PC, attorneys; CJ
Griffin, of counsel and on the brief).
The opinion of the court was delivered by
The central issue on this appeal is whether a settlement agreement
between defendant Cumberland County and a former County employee
resolving a preliminary notice of disciplinary action (PNDA) against the
employee is a government record under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10 (section 10) of the
Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, the exemption for
personnel records. We hold a settlement agreement resolving an internal
disciplinary action against a public employee is not classified as a government
record under OPRA, but instead is a personnel record exempt from disclosure
under section 10 of the statute. We, accordingly, reverse the trial court order
that held to the contrary, and remand for the court to consider whether plaintiff
Libertarians for Transparent Government is entitled to the settlement
agreement, either in whole or in part, under the common law right of access to
public records, see Bergen Cty. Improvement Auth. v. N. Jersey Media Grp.,
Inc., 370 N.J. Super. 504, 520 (App. Div. 2004).
The essential facts are easily summarized. Libertarians obtained minutes
of the March 12, 2018 Board Meeting of the Police and Fireman's Retirement
System, reflecting the Board's consideration of an application for special
retirement by Tyrone Ellis, a corrections officer employed by Cumberland
County at its correctional facility. The minutes state that Ellis was charged in
a PNDA seeking his termination with conduct unbecoming and other sufficient
causes following an internal affairs investigation in which Ellis admitted to
engaging in sex with two inmates and bringing them contraband, including
bras, underwear, cigarettes and a cellphone. He also admitted to using an alias
that allowed him to correspond with and provide money to one of the inmates
through JPAY, a service that allows individuals to transfer money to inmates.
The minutes reflect that Ellis resigned while the disciplinary action was
pending. According to the minutes, when Ellis learned the County intended to
continue to pursue the disciplinary charges, he agreed to cooperate in an
investigation of other suspected acts of improper fraternization, leading to
charges against four other officers. "As a result of his cooperation,
Cumberland County agreed to dismiss the disciplinary charges and permit Mr.
Ellis to retire in good standing" as reflected in a March 1, 2017 settlement
agreement between Ellis and the County. The PFRS Board determined Ellis'
misconduct required a partial forfeiture of his service and salary, and approved
his service retirement less that partial forfeiture.
Having obtained those minutes, Libertarians made an OPRA request to
the County for the PNDA issued to Ellis, a copy of the settlement agreement,
and Ellis' "name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation
and the reason therefor" in accordance with section 10. County counsel timely
responded by advising that section 10 prohibited access to the PNDA, but in
accordance with the exception in that section for the specific information
Libertarians sought, provided Ellis' name, his title, his yearly salary of
$71,575, his hire date of March 6, 1991, and separation date of February 28,
2017. County counsel advised Ellis "was charged with a disciplinary
infraction and was terminated."
County counsel also confirmed the existence of "an agreement with
respect to the disciplinary action resulting in separation from employment."
He advised the County could not
unfortunately, make additional information available
as personnel records, including disciplinary records,
are confidential. The settlement agreement pertains to
a disciplinary matter and does not fall under the
exception with respect to settlement agreements
pertaining to outside litigation under the case of
Burnett v. Gloucester County, 415 N.J. Super. 506
(App. Div. 2010). See too, South Jersey Publishing
Company, Inc. v. New Jersey Expressway Authority,
124 N.J. 478 (1991). That case also would preclude
the release of that type of information.
County counsel invited Libertarians to provide any "additional information or
authority which you believe entitles you to this information," but advised that
"[a]t this point," the County was constrained to limit disclosure to the
Libertarians filed this OPRA action seeking access to the settlement
agreement alleging "it is not wholly exempt under OPRA" and that it should
"[a]t a minimum" have been produced in redacted form. Libertarians also
sought a ruling that the County violated section 10 by misrepresenting the
reason for Ellis' separation, indicating he was "terminated" instead of allowed
to retire in good standing. Alternatively, Libertarians demanded the agreement
under the common law right of access, alleging that "[m]uch of the details
about Ellis' misconduct and his separation from employment are already
known to the public" through the PFRS board minutes and a lawsuit filed in
federal court against the County by an inmate claiming Ellis forced her into
sex, Cantoni v. Cumberland County, Civ. No. 17-7893 (NHL)(AMD) 2018,
U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11269 (D.N.J. July 6, 2018).
After hearing argument, but before review of the settlement agreement,
the court rejected the County's position that the agreement was a personnel
record exempted from disclosure by section 10. Relying on those cases
holding that agreements settling claims and lawsuits between claimants and
governmental entities constitute government records accessible under OPRA,
see Burnett, 415 N.J. Super. at 512, and Asbury Park Press v. County of
Monmouth, 406 N.J. Super. 1, 10 (App. Div. 2009), the court ruled the
settlement agreement between Ellis and the County was a government record
subject to disclosure with necessary redactions. The court specifically rejected
the County's argument distinguishing those cases because the settlement
agreements at issue there resolved lawsuits, not internal disciplinary actions,
deeming it not "persuasive."
Specifically, the court stated:
ultimately what I see here is the county couching this
settlement agreement as a personnel [record] in its
entirety. Which I think is an unfair characterization of
what the settlement agreement is. Is it likely that
there's some personnel information in that record that
should be redacted? Yes, it's certainly likely. But the
public, under OPRA, should be entitled to and is
entitled to information concerning especially financial
aspects of this arrangement.
The court expressed the concern that
if we give a document a certain name, then what
happens is the government will attempt to argue that
because we named it a settlement of a personnel
matter or whatever we want to call it, the government
will seek to limit the disclosure of the document as a
governmental record, which flies in the face of what
OPRA is seeking to accomplish.
It also found that the County's alleged misrepresentation of the true reason for
Ellis' separation "in and of itself, [was] cause for [the] court to address at least
that inconsistency, by releasing the portions of this governmental record."
The court also rejected the County's position that the exemption for
ongoing investigations, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-3(a), also shielded the settlement
agreement from disclosure under OPRA. Acknowledging the County's
representation that the investigation revealed in the minutes of the PFRS
Board, with which Ellis had agreed to cooperate, included a criminal
investigation by the County prosecutor's office,1 which was then still ongoing,
the court ruled that "if there's information in there that's going to interfere with
the investigation of the prosecutor's office, it should not be made public."
The court advised the parties it would perform an in camera review of
the document, saying it "suspect[ed]" it would "further confirm this court's
opinion that this, in fact, is a governmental record, with some personnel
information contained therein." Although declining to make its ruling final
pending its in camera review of the document, the court nevertheless found
Libertarians a prevailing party entitled to counsel fees.
We include reference to the criminal investigation, which was not mentioned
in the PFRS Board minutes, because it was included in that part of the trial
transcript that the trial court directed not be sealed. See R. 1:2-1. See also R.
1:38-1A. We are not aware of whether the existence of that criminal
investigation was public knowledge before it was discussed on the record in
this matter. Trial courts should obviously take care to avoid compromising
ongoing criminal investigations in OPRA proceedings, hearing argument by
the public entity as part of the in camera review, if necessary. See Hartz
Mountain Indus., Inc. v. N.J. Sports & Exposition Auth., 369 N.J. Super. 175,
183 (App. Div. 2004). We further note that the parties learned when the
County ordered the transcript that the entire record of the proceeding had been
sealed, requiring a motion to this court to unseal it to permit prosecution of the
appeal. OPRA proceedings should, of course, be conducted in open court in
accordance with Rule 1:2, and sealing of any portion of the transcript of the
proceeding determined in accordance with Rules 1:2-2 and 1:38-11.
Following an hour recess to permit in camera review of the settlement
agreement, the court advised the parties on the record:
that probably about 90 percent of the agreement . . .
falls into the category [previously] discussed, the
category being the criminal investigation or
particularly the disciplinary issues that . . . involve
Mr. Ellis. That does mean there's about 10 percent or
so of the information I do find to be appropriate to be
After reviewing the specific redactions on the record, the court concluded:
So, essentially, when it's all said and done, what this
court did was leave in there the fact that Mr. Ellis
submitted his resignation, that Mr. Ellis is going to
cooperate in some fashion. And that assuming he
cooperates in that fashion, then he will be permitted to
retire in good standing. That's the portion that I find
to be subject to public inspection.
The parties subsequently entered into a consent order for fees in the sum
of $10,000, which they agreed to stay pending the County's appeal. The court
filed an amplification of its oral opinion, reiterating its finding that the
settlement agreement did not qualify as a personnel record. The court also
found that because the agreement predated commencement of any
investigation, the exemption in OPRA for investigations in progress, N.J.S.A.
47:1A-3(a), did not apply, citing Serrano v. South Brunswick Township, 358 N.J. Super. 352, 366-67 (App. Div. 2003). The court stayed its order for
access, releasing the redacted document only to counsel for Libertarians to
permit it to defend an anticipated appeal in this court.
The County appeals, reprising its arguments to the trial court.
Libertarians counters that settlement agreements are not "categorically
exempt" personnel records, and that the trial court did not err in concluding the
settlement agreement "was not wholly exempt from access" and properly
released it as redacted.
Our review of the trial court's determination that the settlement
agreement between Ellis and the County is a government record under OPRA
is de novo. K.L. v. Evesham Twp. Bd. of Educ., 423 N.J. Super. 337, 349
(App. Div. 2011). The Supreme Court has stated on more than one occasion
that "[t]he Legislature enacted OPRA 'to promote transparency in the operation
of government.'" Paff v. Ocean Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 235 N.J. 1, 16 (2018)
(quoting Carter v. Doe (In re N.J. Firemen's Ass'n Obligation), 230 N.J. 258,
276 (2017)). "With broad public access to information about how state and
local governments operate, citizens and the media can play a watchful role in
curbing wasteful government spending and guarding against corruption and
misconduct." Burnett v. County of Bergen, 198 N.J. 408, 414 (2009).
OPRA advances that policy "by broadly defining 'government records,'
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, and by publicly declaring that they shall be accessible,
9 N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1." Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 206 N.J.
581, 588 (2011). As the Court has explained, "[n]otwithstanding that
sweeping declaration, the right to disclosure is not unlimited, because as [the
Court has] previously found, OPRA itself makes plain that 'the public's right of
access [is] not absolute.'" Ibid. (quoting Educ. Law Ctr. v. N.J. Dep't of Educ.,
198 N.J. 274, 284 (2009)).
In addition to the more than twenty different categories of information
within government records the statute expressly deems confidential and thus
exempt from public access, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, OPRA excludes personnel and
pension records from the definition of government records, with limited
exceptions, only one of which is at issue here. 2 Specifically, section 10 of the
statute provides in its entirety:
Personnel or pension records not considered
government records; exceptions
Notwithstanding the provisions of P.L. 1963, c. 73 (C.
47:1A-1 et seq.) or any other law to the contrary, the
personnel or pension records of any individual in the
possession of a public agency, including but not
The County provided Libertarians the information contained in the first
exception, the one at issue here, which excepts from the exemption for
personnel records, "an individual's name, title, position, salary, payroll record,
length of service, date of separation and the reason therefore, and the amount
and type of any pension received," in its initial response to the OPRA request.
The County also offered on the return date to produce payroll records
reflecting the same information.
limited to records relating to any grievance filed by or
against an individual, shall not be considered a
government record and shall not be made available for
public access, except 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 a government record;
personnel or pension records of any individual shall be
accessible when required to be disclosed by another
law, when disclosure is essential to the performance of
official duties of a person duly authorized by this State
or the United States, or when authorized by an
individual in interest; and
data contained in information which disclose
conformity with specific experiential, educational or
medical qualifications required for government
employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not
including any detailed medical or psychological
information, shall be a government record.
As the Court has explained, "[t]he Legislature has declared in this
provision that personnel records are, by definition, not classified as
government records at all; any document that qualifies as a personnel record is
therefore not subject to being disclosed notwithstanding the other provisions of
the statute." Kovalcik, 206 N.J. at 592. Unfortunately, however, OPRA "does
not define precisely what information is covered by the phrase 'personnel
record,'" and the "case law interpreting this provision is sparse." McGee v.
Township of East Amwell, 416 N.J. Super. 602, 615 (App. Div. 2010).
We have little doubt that the PNDA — the Preliminary Notice of
Disciplinary Action — which Libertarians initially sought from the County,
but did not pursue in this action, would qualify as a personnel record under
section 10. The plain language of that section, that "the personnel . . . records
of any individual in the possession of a public agency, including but not
limited to records relating to any grievance filed by or against an individual,
shall not be considered a government record," does not admit any other
interpretation. "When the language in a statute 'is clear and unambiguous, and
susceptible to only one interpretation,'" courts should not look elsewhere to
glean its meaning. Burnett, 198 N.J. at 421 (quoting Lozano v. Frank DeLuca
Constr., 178 N.J. 513, 522 (2004)). Instead, we are to "apply the statute as
written." Lozano, 178 N.J. at 522 (quoting In re Passaic Cty. Utils. Auth., 164 N.J. 270, 299 (2000)).
The Government Records Council considers records involving employee
discipline or investigations into employee misconduct as personnel records
exempt from disclosure under OPRA. 3 See Rick Moreno v. Bor. of Ho-Ho-
Libertarians relies on another GRC case, Ungaro v. Town of Dover, GRC
Complaint No. 2008-115 (November 2009), to support its argument that the
Kus, GRC Complaint No. 2003-110 (March 2004) (internal reprimands of a
municipal police officer); Allen v. County of Warren, GRC Complaint No.
2003-155 (March 2004) (harassment complaint filed against an employee).
Although the GRC's decisions are not binding on us or any court, N.J.S.A.
47:1A-7(e), Paff v. Galloway Township, 229 N.J. 340, 357 (2017), we
nevertheless accord some weight to the GRC's interpretation of OPRA.
McGee, 416 N.J. Super. at 616. Its determination that a public employee's
disciplinary records are personnel records not subject to public access under
the statute is reasonable and consistent with the statutory language.
If the disciplinary records themselves are exempt from disclosure under
section 10, we have difficulty understanding why an internal settlement
agreement resolving disciplinary charges, which often involves an employee
accepting discipline, would not similarly be considered a personnel record
exempt from disclosure. Indeed, we expect that some employees agree to
settle disciplinary charges, at least in part, to avoid public disclosure of the
charges. We have held that settlement agreements by public entities resolving
GRC considers settlement agreements government records. Ungaro, however,
is clearly distinguishable as the GRC ruled only that Dover's reliance on a
confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement between the municipality and
its business administrator, would not protect the document from disclosure
under OPRA, because the statute has no exemption for confidentiality clauses.
Moreover, Ungaro did not involve the resolution of an internal disciplinary
action brought by a public agency against its employee, as is the case here.
civil litigation are unequivocally public records under OPRA that must be
disclosed upon request. See e.g., Asbury Park Press, 406 N.J. Super. at 9. But
those cases involved settlements of lawsuits, as in Asbury Park Press, or
monetary claims against public agencies, as in Burnett, for which there is no
exception in OPRA.
As we explained in Asbury Park Press:
Lawsuits are filed in a public forum. One of our
basic Rules of Court requires that court proceedings
be conducted openly unless otherwise provided by
rule or statute. R. 1:2-1. Reviewing a history of open
government, our Supreme Court has described "open
judicial proceedings as the cornerstone of a
democratic society." Tarus v. Borough of Pine Hill,
189 N.J. 497, 507 (2007) (citing 1 Jeremy Bentham,
Rationale of Judicial Evidence 524 (London, 1827)).
Privacy interests give way to the public's right to
know the business of the courts, with exceptions not
relevant here primarily applicable in the Family
[Asbury Park Press, 406 N.J. Super. at 9.]
Asbury Park Press involved a sex discrimination, sexual harassment,
retaliation, and hostile work environment suit filed in the Law Division by a
county employee against the freeholders and five individually named county
employees. Id. at 4. Two years after the suit was filed, it settled. Id. at 4-5.
The parties agreed their settlement agreement would remain confidential, and
it was not filed or incorporated in a judgment. Id. at 5. The only court filing
was a one-line stipulation of dismissal. Ibid.
When the Asbury Park Press and John Paff sued to compel release of the
agreement under OPRA, the trial court agreed with Monmouth County that the
exclusion in the definitional section of the statute for "information generated
by or on behalf of public employers or public employees in connection with
any sexual harassment complaint filed with a public employer," N.J.S.A.
47:1A-1.1, precluded release of the settlement agreement. Id. at 8. We
reversed. We held "[t]he plain language of the statute limits the exclusion to
sexual harassment complaints 'filed with a public employer.'" Ibid.
Because "Melnick's complaint was filed in the Superior Court, not with
Monmouth County," we found Melnick's complaint, and the agreement
memorializing her settlement of it, did "not come within the plain language of
the exclusion." Ibid. We wrote that
[b]y referring in OPRA to sexual harassment
complaints "filed with a public employer," the
Legislature distinguished between internal complaints
addressed only to the employer and those filed as a
matter of public record. The distinction makes sense
and continues to value a policy of encouraging victims
to come forward. The Legislature gave victims the
opportunity to bring sexual harassment complaints to
their public employers without public access. At the
same time, the Legislature did not interfere with the
long-standing governmental policy of conducting
judicial affairs openly to the public.
[Id. at 10.]
Although the exemption for sexual harassment complaints filed with an
employer and the total exclusion of personnel records are in different sections
of the statute, the treatment of sexual harassment complaints in OPRA is
instructive here. As the Court has noted in construing other exemptions in
OPRA, "[o]ur job is to understand the intent that animated those exemptions
and to give it effect." Gilleran v. Bloomfield, 227 N.J. 159, 172 (2016). We
don't do so by "view[ing] the statutory words in isolation but 'in context with
related provisions so as to give sense to the legislation as a whole.'" Ibid.
(quoting Murray v. Plainfield Rescue Squad, 210 N.J. 581, 592 (2012)).
Viewed together, the exemption of personnel records in section 10 and
the exclusion of "information generated by or on behalf of public employers or
public employees in connection with any sexual harassment complaint filed
with a public employer," in the definitional section of the statute, N.J.S.A.
47:1A-1.1, "advance a discernible public policy," ibid., in OPRA to
differentiate between internal records maintained by a governmental entity
relating to employee personnel matters, be it disciplinary records, or sexual
harassment complaints and investigations, and the public airing of such
matters in a civil lawsuit. OPRA expressly exempts only the former from
disclosure, not the latter. Thus, the statute provides no right of access to
internal personnel records, including those related to disciplinary infractions or
sexual harassment allegations, while requiring disclosure of such records when
one side or the other advances the matter out of the internal realm of the public
agency by filing a lawsuit.
As we noted in Asbury Park Press,
the Legislature struck a balance in OPRA between the
competing interests of privacy and open government.
It excluded from the reach of OPRA those complaints
of sexual harassment that are filed only with the
public employer and do not enter into a public forum,
such as the courts. The Legislature did not undertake
to assure privacy when an alleged victim of sexual
harassment chooses to seek redress in the courts.
[ 406 N.J. Super. at 11.]
Neither Asbury Park Press nor Burnett, 415 N.J. Super. at 512, also
relied on by the trial court but which did not involve the personnel records
exemption or a claim by an employee, provides support for finding
Libertarians has a right of access under OPRA to the settlement agreement
resolving Cumberland County's employee-related disciplinary charges against
Ellis, which charges were resolved internally within the public agency.
Although this matter and Asbury Park Press both involved a request to access a
settlement agreement entered into by a public agency, that is the extent of their
commonality. Settlement agreements by public agencies to resolve civil suits,
including sex harassment suits by employees, are accessible under OPRA.
Ibid. Settlement agreements by public agencies to resolve internal disciplinary
charges or internal sexual harassment complaints are not accessible under
OPRA. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, 10.
We do not share the trial court's concern that a ruling permitting public
agencies to shield settlement agreements resolving internal disciplinary
charges will result in the improper characterization of other settlements as
agreements resolving "personnel" matters. We, of course, expect government
agencies to comply with law and "turn square corners" in doing so. See
Dolente v. Borough of Pine Hill, 313 N.J. Super. 410, 418 (App. Div. 1998).
Additionally, in camera review of challenged documents permits both the GRC
and the Law Division to quickly and efficiently test the government's claim
that a document is not publicly accessible under OPRA. See N.J.S.A. 47:1A-
7(f); Paff v. N.J. Dept. of Labor, 379 N.J. Super. 346, 355 (App. Div. 2005);
MAG Entm't, LLC v. Div. of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 375 N.J. Super.
534, 551 (App. Div. 2005).
We have considered whether the first exception to section 10's
exemption of personnel records from the definition of government record, 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 a government record," required the County to permit
Libertarians access to the settlement agreement redacted to disclose the
excepted information. Although we acknowledge the matter is not altogether
free from doubt, we conclude OPRA does not generally require government
agencies to make exempt personnel and pension records accessible in redacted
Our reasons are twofold, the language of the statute and the history of
the exception. First, section 10 states plainly that the personnel and pension
records of employees "shall not be considered a government record and shall
not be made available for public access," N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, differentiating
them from government records that contain information deemed confidential
by N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. See Kovalcik, 206 N.J. at 592 (explaining that because
"[t]he Legislature has declared in [section 10] that personnel records are, by
definition, not classified as government records at all; any document that
qualifies as a personnel record is therefore not subject to being disclosed
notwithstanding the other provisions of the statute").
In contrast, government records containing information included in one
of the more than twenty categories of information deemed confidential in
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, are to be made available for public access redacted by the
custodian in accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(g), which provides:
If the custodian of a government record asserts that
part of a particular record is exempt from public
access pursuant to [OPRA], the custodian shall delete
or excise from a copy of the record that portion which
the custodian asserts is exempt from access and shall
promptly permit access to the remainder of the record.
If documents fairly qualifying as personnel or pension records must be
made publicly accessible, redacted to include only the information included in
the first exception to section 10, that is the "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," they will have
been effectively converted to "government[al] record[s], with some personnel
information contained therein," which can be redacted in accordance with
That was the approach the trial judge took, and that's how he referred to
the settlement agreement resolving Ellis' internal disciplinary charges. The
problem, of course, from the perspective of a statutory analysis, is that it
makes section 10 and its exceptions superfluous, which courts are generally
advised against doing in attempting to derive legislative intent. See In re N.J.
Firemen's Ass'n Obligation, 230 N.J. 258, 274 (2017) (noting "legislative
language must not, if reasonably avoidable, be found to be inoperative,
superfluous or meaningless") (quoting State v. Regis, 208 N.J. 439, 449
(2011)); State in Interest of K.O., 217 N.J. 83, 91 (2014) ("when construing the
Legislature's words, every effort should be made to avoid rendering any part of
the statute superfluous"). If personnel records, nearly every page of which
would likely contain at least some of the information included in section 10 's
first exception, become government records, accessible as redacted to delete
everything but the information in the exception, why include section 10 at all?
The answer we suspect is because personnel records of government
employees have historically been treated differently from other sorts of public
records. When OPRA's predecessor, the Right to Know Law, L. 1963, c. 73,
repealed by L.2001, c. 404, § 17, OPRA, eff. July 7, 2002, was enacted in
1963, Governor Hughes issued Executive Order 9, deeming "[p]ersonnel and
pension records which are required to be made, maintained or kept by any
State or local governmental agency" not "public records subject to inspection
and examination and available for copying pursuant to the provisions of
Chapter 73, P. L. 1963." Exec. Order No. 9 (Sept. 30, 1963), 1 Laws of New
Jersey 1963 1153, available at https://nj.gov/infobank/circular/eoh9.shtml.
Executive Order 9 thus excluded all personnel and pension records from access
under the Right to Know Law.
Governor Byrne refined the exemption for personnel records in
Executive Order 11 in 1974, which provides:
WHEREAS, Chapter 73, P. L. 1963, finds and
declares it to be the public policy of this State that
public records shall be readily accessible for
examination by the citizens of this State for the
protection of the public interest except as otherwise
provided by said law; and
WHEREAS, Said Chapter 73 provides that all records
which are required by law to be made, maintained or
kept on file by State and local governmental agencies
are to be deemed to be public records, subject to
inspection and examination and available for copying,
pursuant to said law; and
WHEREAS, Said Chapter 73 provides that records
which would otherwise be deemed to be public
records, subject to inspection and examination and
available for copying, pursuant to the provisions of
said law, may be excluded therefrom by Executive
Order of the Governor or by any regulation
promulgated under the authority of any Executive
Order of the Governor; and
WHEREAS, Section 3(b) of 9 issued by Governor
Richard J. Hughes in 1963, states that "personnel and
pension records which are required to be made,
maintained or kept by any State or local governmental
agency . . . shall not be deemed to be public records
subject to inspection and examination and available
for copying pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 73,
P.L. 1963;" and
WHEREAS, Disclosure of the name, title and position
of persons receiving pensions and of the type and
amount of pension being received, is an insignificant
invasion of privacy outweighed by the public's right to
know who it is employing, what jobs they are filling
and the identities of those receiving government
Now, Therefore, I, Brendan Byrne, Governor of the
State of New Jersey, by virtue of the authority vested
in me by the Constitution and statutes of this State, do
hereby ORDER and DIRECT
1. Section 3 (b) of 9 of Governor Richard J. Hughes is
rescinded and any regulations adopted and
promulgated thereunder shall be null and void.
2. Except as otherwise provided by law or when
essential to the performance of official duties or when
authorized by a person in interest, an instrumentality
of government shall not disclose to anyone other than
a person duly authorized by this State or the United
States to inspect such information in connection with
his official duties, personnel or pension records of an
individual, except that the following shall be public
a. An individual's name, title, position, salary, payroll
record, length of service in the instrumentality of
government and in the government, date of separation
from government service and the reason therefor; and
the amount and type of pension he is receiving;
b. Data contained in information which disclose
conformity with specific experiential, educational or
medical qualifications required for government
employment or for receipt of a public pension, but in
no event shall detailed medical or psychological
information be released.
3. This Executive Order shall take effect immediately.
Given, under my hand and seal this 15th day of
November, in the year of our Lord, one thousand nine
hundred and seventy-four, of the Independence of the
United States, the one hundred and ninety- ninth.
/s/ Brendan Byrne
/s/ Donald Lan,
Executive Secretary to the Governor
[Exec. Order No. 11 (Nov. 15, 1974) 1 Laws of New
Jersey 1974 765, available at
Thus, since the enactment of the Right to Know Law in 1963, the
personnel and pension records of government employees have not been
accessible to the public under statute. Governor's Byrne's Executive Order 11,
making clear, however, that no governmental agency could use that ban on
public disclosure of personnel and pension records to avoid disclosing "the
name, title and position of persons receiving pensions and of the type and
amount of pension being received," in light of "the public's right to know who
it is employing, what jobs they are filling and the identities of those receiving
When the Legislature repealed the Right to Know Law and replaced it
with OPRA in 2001, it incorporated, almost verbatim, Governor Byrne 's
Executive Order 11 exclusion of personnel and pension records from the
definition of government record and its limited exception making public the
names, titles, positions, salaries and payroll records of any person employed
by the government, as well as their length of service, date and reason for
separation and the amount and type of pension the employee is receiving.
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10. Governor McGreevey contemporaneously issued
Executive Order 21, continuing the exemptions in Executive Orders No. 9
(Hughes), and 11 (Byrne), for personnel records. Exec. Order No. 21 (July 8,
2002), 34 N.J.R. 2487(a).
OPRA likewise provides that all government records
shall be subject to public access unless exempt from
such access by: P.L.1963, c.73 (C.47:1A-1 et seq.) as
amended and supplemented; any other statute;
resolution of either or both houses of the Legislature;
regulation promulgated under the authority of any
statute or Executive Order of the Governor; Executive
Order of the Governor; Rules of Court; any federal
law, federal regulation, or federal order.
[ N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 (emphasis added).]
Because OPRA "does not abrogate any exemption of a public or government
record pursuant to the Right to Know Law, any other statute, resolution of
either house of the Legislature, any duly adopted regulation, Executive Order,
rule of court or federal law," Michelson v. Wyatt, 379 N.J. Super. 611, 619
(App. Div. 2005) (citing N.J.S.A. 47:1A-9; N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(a)), section 10's
exclusion of personal and pension records, and its exceptions, have to be
interpreted in light of Executive Order 11.
Doing so leads us to conclude that the mention of an employee's name,
title, position, salary, years of service, date and reason of separation, or the
amount and type of the employee's pension in a personnel or pension record
does not make that document a government record publicly accessible under
OPRA, redacted to exclude all other information. Instead, we conclude, in
accordance with Executive Order 11 that personnel and pension records are not
to be made publicly accessible under OPRA, but 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" is public
information, notwithstanding its inclusion in personnel or pension records not
available for inspection under OPRA.
Accordingly, we reject Libertarians' argument "that the settlement
agreement was not wholly exempt from access" and that it was "properly
released . . . in redacted form" as not supported by the language of section 10
or the history of excluding personnel and pension records from public access
contained in Executive Orders 9 (Hughes), 11 (Byrne) and 21 (McGreevey).
We also note that Libertarians acted in accordance with the long-standing
understanding of the first exception to section 10, by asking the County in its
records request for the PNDA, the settlement agreement and "[f]or Ellis, his
name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation and reason
therefore" in accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.
We acknowledge Libertarians' argument that limiting it to "the section
10 information [the government] provides" is "problematic . . . because the
very reason OPRA was adopted was so that members of the public may view
records and not simply trust what the government tells them." That problem is
well-illustrated here by County counsel's representation in response to
Libertarians' OPRA request that "Officer Ellis was charged with a disciplinary
infraction and was terminated." While the County has maintained the response
was not "inaccurate" as it "forced Mr. Ellis to resign and also left him exposed
to the decision of the [PFRS] Board," we agree with Libertarians that OPRA
was designed to prevent public agencies engaging in such inaccurate "spin."
We do not agree, however, with the trial court's statement that the
County's mischaracterizing Ellis' separation as a termination instead of a
resignation "in and of itself, [was] cause for [the] court to address at least that
inconsistency, by releasing the portions" of the settlement agreement. We do
not condone the County's misstatement regarding the reason for Ellis'
separation, but neither do we accept that such should affect a statutory
analysis, especially when the court has other measures, such as ordering the
County to correct the record following the court's in camera review of the
withheld documents and awarding the requestor its fees, to address the
In that regard, we note the trial court made several substantive rulings,
including that Libertarians was a prevailing party, before viewing the
settlement agreement in camera. The better practice would be to avoid
substantive rulings until after in camera review. See e.g., Fisher v. Div. of
Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61, 68 (2008) (remanding matter to the GRC to permit "a
That the settlement agreement between the County and Ellis resolving
the County's disciplinary charges against Ellis is not a government record
accessible under OPRA does not end the matter. In its complaint, Libertarians
alternatively sought disclosure of the document under the common law right of
access. See N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1; Bergen Cty. Improvement Auth., 370 N.J.
Super. at 516 (noting that "[i]n adopting OPRA, the Legislature expressly and
unambiguously declared that the common law right of access remained a
viable and legally independent means for a citizen to obtain public
information"). Because the trial court found the settlement agreement was not
a personnel record under section 10 and ordered it produced as redacted, it did
not consider Libertarians' claim for disclosure of the settlement agreement
under the common law.
The definition of a public record under the common law is broader than
that of a government record under OPRA, encompassing any "record 'made by
public officers in the exercise of public functions.'" S. N.J. Newspapers v.
Township of Mt. Laurel, 141 N.J. 56, 72 (1995) (quoting N. Jersey
Newspapers Co. v. Passaic Cty. Bd. of Chosen Freeholders, 127 N.J. 9, 13
(1992)). We have no doubt that the settlement agreement at issue here would
thorough in camera review of [records sought] for the purpose of determining
if any privileges exist and whether a special surcharge [was] appropriate").
qualify as a public record under the common law, and that Libertarians can
likely establish an interest in the subject matter of that agreement. See Educ.
Law Ctr. v. N.J. Dept of Educ., 198 N.J. 274, 302 (2009) (explaining the two-
step inquiry involved in the common law right of access). The sexual
exploitation of inmates and detainees in the Cumberland County jail by
corrections officers is undoubtedly a matter of intense public interest, as is the
County's decision to permit an officer who admittedly engaged in such
wrongdoing to retire in good standing.
We, however, are ill-equipped to conduct the balancing of Libertarians'
interest in disclosure against Cumberland County's interest in confidentiality
required under Loigman v. Kimmelman, 102 N.J. 98, 113 (1986), particularly
given the County's past assertions that disclosure could affect a then-ongoing
criminal investigation. The trial court rendered its decision in this matter
nearly two years ago. We expect that the considerations, particularly as they
relate to the investigation of wrongdoing in the jail, may well be different now.
See O'Shea v. Township of West Milford, 410 N.J. Super 371, 388 (App. Div.
2009) (noting "[t]he balancing test for access under the common law requires
factual determinations that are best left to the trial courts"); Hartz Mountain,
369 N.J. Super. at 183. We accordingly remand the matter to the trial court to
balance the County's interest in confidentiality against the public interest in
disclosure of the settlement agreement. See S. N.J. Newspapers, 141 N.J. at
To sum up, we reverse the trial court's finding that the settlement
agreement between Ellis and the County is a government record under OPRA,
and reject the argument that it should have been produced in redacted form.
We remand for the court to consider Libertarians' right to disclosure of the
document under the common law right of access. We also reverse the order
for fees to Libertarians as a prevailing party under OPRA. We do not retain
Reversed and remanded.