Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) required disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property. An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts. The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The Supreme Court determined courts were not required to analyze the "Doe" factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists. "A party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy." Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing. "It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property -- including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property -- will remain private. Without a review of the Doe factors, we find that OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction." The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the
convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the
interest of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

                  William J. Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (A-62-16) (078074)

Argued January 17, 2018 -- Decided May 23, 2018

RABNER, C.J., writing for the Court.

         In this appeal, the Court considers whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13,
requires disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property.

        An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized
by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders.

          Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common
law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning
bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or
addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their
personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts.

          Days later, plaintiff filed a complaint that asserted he was entitled to the requested records under OPRA
and the common law right of access. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and its custodian of records filed a
motion to dismiss. The trial court denied the motion but declined to order immediate disclosure. The court found
that the winning bidders did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal information under OPRA.
However, the court granted defendants ten more days to contact the winning bidders and advise them either to object
to the release of their personal information or to move to intervene.

         The Prosecutor’s Office sent a letter to the successful bidders. Based on the responses, the Prosecutor’s
Office declined to provide plaintiff the unredacted records.

          The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The court analyzed
defendants’ privacy argument under the factors outlined in Doe v. Poritz, 
142 N.J. 1, 88 (1995), and found that the
buyers’ privacy interest was “limited,” in that most names and addresses are already publicly available from various
sources. Likewise, because the information was not “private,” the court found that the potential for harm was
“relatively miniscule.” The court noted that plaintiff sought names and addresses, not social security numbers. As a
result, any concern that disclosure would create a security risk for the buyers was “only speculative.”

          The Appellate Division reversed. The panel weighed the Doe factors and concluded that the buyers had a
reasonable expectation of privacy in their names and addresses because the purchase of sports memorabilia could
reveal that an individual is a collector and “could make the bidders targets of theft.” Finally, the panel observed that
the interest in government accountability would not be served by disclosure. For similar reasons, the Appellate
Division found that plaintiff was not entitled to disclosure under the common law.

         The Court granted plaintiff’s petition for certification. 
230 N.J. 357 (2017).

HELD: Courts are not required to analyze the Doe factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists. A
party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation
of privacy. It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property will remain private.
OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction.

1. OPRA provides that “all government records shall be subject to public access unless exempt,” and “any
limitations on the right of access . . . shall be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.” 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.

                                                            1
The law also places the burden on the public agency to prove that it appropriately denied a request. 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-
6. At the same time, the statute declares that a public agency must “safeguard from public access a citizen’s
personal information with which it has been entrusted when disclosure thereof would violate the citizen’s reasonable
expectation of privacy.” 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 (emphasis added). (pp. 8-9)

2. The statute lists twenty-three exemptions. 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. Several exemptions encompass names and home
addresses but prevent their release only in limited situations. Aside from those particular exemptions, however,
OPRA does not contain a broad-based exception for the disclosure of names and home addresses that appear in
government records. That issue has been debated before, and a report issued in 2004 recommended certain limits on
disclosure. Neither the legislative nor the executive branch, by law or executive order, has adopted the
recommendations. (pp. 9-12)

3. In Burnett v. County of Bergen, the Court considered “a single request for eight million pages of land title records of
all types, . . . which contain[ed] names, addresses, social security numbers, and signatures of countless citizens.” 
198 N.J. 408, 414 (2009). To balance the statute’s competing aims—ready access to government records while
safeguarding a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy—the Court looked to the factors identified in Doe, 
142 N.J.
at 88. Id. at 428-37. The Court considered and balanced the factors and concluded that they weighed in favor of
redacting social security numbers—not home addresses—from the requested records. Id. at 437-38. In Carter v. Doe
(In re N.J. Firemen’s Ass’n Obligation), the Court once again turned to the Doe factors to analyze a privacy claim. 
230 N.J. 258, 279-80 (2017). The plaintiff sought copies of financial assistance applications and hardship payments made
to firefighters through the Firemen’s Association. Id. at 267-68. The Association noted that the records sought
contained “the complete personal financial history of individual applicants.” Id. at 280. After a review of the Doe
factors, the Court declined to order disclosure of the records. Ibid. (pp. 12-14)

4. Neither Burnett nor Carter, however, requires courts to analyze the Doe factors every time a party asserts that a
privacy interest exists. In Asbury Park Press v. County of Monmouth, for example, the Court saw “no reason to
analyze the Doe factors” when disclosure “would not violate any reasonable expectation of privacy.” 
201 N.J. 5, 7
(2010). As OPRA states, it is only “when disclosure . . . would violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of
privacy” that a public agency must safeguard records from public access. 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 (emphasis added).
Before an extended analysis of the Doe factors is required, a custodian must present a colorable claim that public
access to the records requested would invade a person’s objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. The
custodians in Burnett and Carter raised serious privacy concerns that established far more than a colorable claim.
The threshold showing they presented justified a searching analysis of the Doe factors. By contrast, the custodian in
Asbury Park Press did not present a colorable privacy claim at the outset. When a claim of privacy falls short in that
way, there is no need to resort to the Doe factors. (pp. 14-16)

5. In this case, defendants did not present a colorable claim in support of their privacy argument. Forfeiture
proceedings and public auctions of forfeited property are not conducted in private. Before the State can subject
property to forfeiture, it must file a complaint and give notice to “any person known to have a property interest in
the article.” 
N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(a) to (c). If contested, the matter is then aired in court. 
N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(f). In
addition, the Legislature generally requires government entities to provide public notice in advance of a public
auction. See, e.g., 
N.J.S.A. 40A:14-157(a); 
N.J.S.A. 52:27B-68; 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-40.3(b)(1). Viewed objectively, it
was unreasonable for a buyer to expect that the information requested would remain private. If anything, the sale of
government property at a public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for transparency. To guard against
possible abuses, the public has a right to know what property was sold, at what price, and to whom. OPRA’s plain
terms call for disclosure of that type of recorded information, including the names and addresses of successful
bidders. To hold otherwise would jeopardize OPRA’s purpose: to maximize public knowledge about public affairs
in order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils inherent in a secluded process. The privacy
interest asserted in this case was limited, and the risk of harm was speculative. Because disclosure is required under
OPRA, the Court does not reach plaintiff’s claim under the common law. (pp. 16-18)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the requested records are ordered disclosed.

     JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and
TIMPONE join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER’s opinion.


                                                          2
                                     SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
                                       A-
62 September Term 2016
                                                078074

WILLIAM J. BRENNAN,

    Plaintiff-Appellant,

         v.

BERGEN COUNTY PROSECUTOR’S
OFFICE; FRANK PUCCIO,
CUSTODIAN OF RECORDS FOR THE
BERGEN COUNTY PROSECUTOR’S
OFFICE,

    Defendants-Respondents.


         Argued January 17, 2018 – Decided May 23, 2018

         On certification to the Superior Court,
         Appellate Division.

         Donald F. Burke, Jr., argued the cause for
         appellant (Law Office of Donald F. Burke,
         attorney; Donald F. Burke, on the brief).

         Craig P. Bossong argued the cause for
         respondents (Florio Perrucci Steinhardt &
         Fader, attorneys; John M. Carbone, of
         Carbone and Faasse, on the brief).

         CJ Griffin argued the cause for amicus
         curiae Libertarians for Transparent
         Government (Pashman Stein Walder Hayden,
         attorneys; CJ Griffin, of counsel and on the
         brief).


    CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER delivered the opinion of the Court.



                               1
    In this appeal, we consider whether the Open Public Records

Act (OPRA), 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, requires disclosure of the

names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of

government property.

    The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office seized sports

memorabilia and later auctioned it off to the public.   Plaintiff

made an OPRA request for the names and addresses of the

successful bidders.    Citing privacy concerns, the Prosecutor’s

Office declined to produce that information.    Plaintiff then

filed a lawsuit to obtain the records under OPRA and the common

law, and the trial court ordered the records disclosed.    The

Appellate Division looked to various factors outlined in Doe v.

Poritz, 
142 N.J. 1, 88 (1995), to evaluate the request and

assess defendants’ privacy argument.    The panel concluded that

the bidders had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the

information sought and reversed.

    OPRA favors broad public access to government records.       At

the same time, it directs agencies to safeguard “a citizen’s

personal information . . . when disclosure . . . would violate

the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”   
N.J.S.A.

47:1A-1.   In light of that language, courts are not required to

analyze the Doe factors each time a party asserts that a privacy

interest exists.   A party must first present a colorable claim



                                  2
that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable

expectation of privacy.    See ibid.

    Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing.       It

is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction

of government property -- including the names and addresses of

people who bought the seized property -- will remain private.

Without a review of the Doe factors, we find that OPRA calls for

disclosure of records relating to the auction.     We therefore

reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division.

                                  I.

    On May 3, 2014, an auction was held at the Bergen County

Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia

seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.     The

Prosecutor’s Office hired Caspert Management Company, a private

auctioneer, to conduct the auction.

    Bidders could participate in the auction either in person

or online.   All live bidders completed a registration form that

asked them to list their names, addresses, telephone numbers,

and e-mail addresses.     They were assigned a paddle number to use

at the auction.   Online bidders were also assigned a paddle

number.   At oral argument, counsel for the Prosecutor’s Office

represented that online bidders had to present the same personal

information to participate.



                                  3
    There were thirty-nine successful bidders.     Successful live

bidders received receipts that listed only their paddle numbers;

no personal information appeared on the receipts.    Successful

online bidders got receipts that listed their paddle numbers,

names, and addresses.    After a news report raised questions

about whether the auctioned items were authentic, the

Prosecutor’s Office offered the buyers refunds.

    On December 9, 2014, plaintiff William Brennan submitted a

request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common

law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning

bidders,” “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder,” and

other records relating to the contract with Caspert.    (The

latter category of records is not part of this appeal.)    In

response, the Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of

receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses.

The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask

if they would consent to disclosure of their personal

information.   For buyers who consented, the Office represented

it would provide unredacted receipts.    Plaintiff did not pick up

the compact disc of redacted receipts that was prepared.

    Days later, plaintiff filed a complaint that asserted he

was entitled to the requested records under OPRA and the common

law right of access.    Plaintiff also alleged violations of the

State Constitution and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act but later

                                  4
withdrew those claims before the trial court.       The complaint

named as defendants the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and

its custodian of records, who filed an answer and a motion to

dismiss.

    In a written decision dated February 25, 2015, the

Honorable Peter E. Doyne, then Assignment Judge for the Bergen

Vicinage, denied the motion to dismiss but declined to order

immediate disclosure.   The court found that the winning bidders

did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their

personal information under OPRA.       “[I]n light of defendants’

good faith attempt to comply with the request and the state’s

obligation to safeguard personal information,” however, the

court granted defendants ten more days to contact the winning

bidders and advise them either to object to the release of their

personal information or to move to intervene.

    The Prosecutor’s Office, in turn, informed the court that

it sent a letter to the thirty-nine successful bidders; that

nineteen responded; and that all but three objected to the

release of their personal information.       Based on the responses,

the Prosecutor’s Office declined to provide plaintiff the

unredacted records.

    On June 12, 2015, the Honorable Bonnie J. Mizdol, the

Vicinage’s new Assignment Judge, issued a written opinion that

directed defendants to release the requested information under

                                   5
OPRA.   The trial court analyzed defendants’ privacy argument

under the Doe factors.   The court found that the buyers’ privacy

interest was “limited,” in that most names and addresses are

already publicly available from various sources.     Likewise,

because the information was not “private,” the court found that

the potential for harm was “relatively miniscule.”     The court

noted that plaintiff sought names and addresses, not social

security numbers.   As a result, any concern that disclosure

would create a security risk for the buyers was “only

speculative.”

    The Appellate Division reversed.    To determine whether the

records were shielded under OPRA’s privacy clause, the panel

weighed the Doe factors.   The panel concluded that the buyers

had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their names and

addresses -- the same level of confidentiality they could expect

at an auction of private property.   The panel disagreed with the

trial court that “the privacy interest in one’s name and address

is 'very limited.’”   Because the purchase of sports memorabilia

could reveal that an individual is a collector, the panel found

that the buyers’ privacy interests were heightened.     The panel

also disagreed with the conclusion that the buyers’ concerns

were too speculative because disclosure of the receipts and

registration forms “could make the bidders targets of theft.”

Finally, the panel observed that the interest in government

                                 6
accountability would not be served by disclosure because the

“bidders were not responsible for any government actions in

connection with the auction.”    For similar reasons, the

Appellate Division found that plaintiff was not entitled to

disclosure under the common law.

    We granted plaintiff’s petition for certification.      
230 N.J. 357 (2017).   We also granted leave to appear as amicus

curiae to Libertarians for Transparent Government.

                                 II.

    Plaintiff argues that the Appellate Division erred in

allowing the Prosecutor’s Office to withhold the names and

addresses of the bidders.   Plaintiff contends that the ruling

failed to adhere to OPRA’s presumption of openness; that names

and addresses are not exempt under OPRA; that prior Executive

Orders and legislative history support that conclusion; that the

ruling starkly contrasts with precedent; and that the Doe

factors favor disclosure here.

    Defendants argue that the Appellate Division appropriately

analyzed the Doe factors and correctly denied disclosure.

Defendants agree with the panel’s findings that the buyers had a

reasonable expectation that their personal information would

remain private; that disclosure would place the buyers at risk

by linking them to the ownership of valuable sports memorabilia;

and that the release of information would serve no public

                                  7
purpose.    Defendants also maintain that the records should not

be released under the common law.

    Amicus Libertarians for Transparent Government argues that

the names and addresses of purchasers of government property

must be disclosed in order to guard against corruption and

wrongdoing.   Amicus also contends that courts have “over-

applied” Burnett v. County of Bergen, 
198 N.J. 408 (2009), which

adopted the Doe factors for OPRA cases.     According to amicus,

this Court has previously rejected attempts to “over-apply” the

Doe factors and should do so again.     In addition, amicus submits

that an analysis of the Doe factors is not warranted in cases

that involve home addresses alone.

                                III.

    OPRA calls for “ready access to government records” by the

public.    Burnett, 
198 N.J. at 421.   The statute provides that

“all government records shall be subject to public access unless

exempt,” and “any limitations on the right of access . . . shall

be construed in favor of the public’s right of access.”


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.    The law also places the burden on the public

agency to prove that it appropriately denied a request.


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6.

    OPRA broadly defines the term “government record.”      The

phrase includes any documents “made, maintained or kept on file

in the course of . . . official business.”     
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1.

                                  8
At the same time, the statute declares that a public agency must

“safeguard from public access a citizen’s personal information

with which it has been entrusted when disclosure thereof would

violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 (emphasis added).    The meaning of that privacy

clause is central to this appeal.

       The statute lists twenty-three exemptions.   
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-

1.1.   None, however, provide an overarching exception for the

disclosure of names or home addresses.    One exception

specifically prevents public access to the following personal

information:   “that portion of any document which discloses the

social security number, credit card number, unlisted telephone

number or driver license number of any person.”     Ibid.    Under


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(a), custodians must redact that information

from government records before allowing access to them.       The

exemption, however, does not mention or protect names or home

addresses.

       Several other exemptions encompass names and home addresses

but prevent their release only in limited situations.       Personal

identifying information -- including a person’s name and address

-- is exempt from disclosure when received “in connection with

the issuance of any license authorizing hunting with a firearm.”


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1.    “Personal firearms records” -- including a

person’s name and address -- which are “contained in a

                                  9
background investigation . . . of any applicant for a permit to

purchase a handgun, firearms identification card license, or

firearms registration” are also exempt.      Ibid.

    In addition, OPRA protects crime victims whose personal

information appears in government records.      A defendant

convicted of a crime may not gain access to the victim’s home

address or various other personal identifiers.       
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-

2.2(a).   OPRA also exempts from disclosure any information that

is protected by any other state or federal statute, regulation,

or executive order.   
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-9(a).    As a result, the home

address of a victim of domestic violence cannot be obtained

through OPRA.   See 
N.J.S.A. 47:4-2 to -4.

    As the above examples reveal, the Legislature has chosen to

prevent disclosure of home addresses in select situations.

Aside from those particular exemptions, however, OPRA does not

contain a broad-based exception for the disclosure of names and

home addresses that appear in government records.

    That issue has been debated before.      On July 5, 2002, just

days before OPRA went into effect, Governor McGreevey issued

Executive Order 21.   To give effect to “the legislative

directive that a public” agency must “safeguard from public

access a citizen’s personal information with which it has been

entrusted,” the Executive Order declared that “an individual’s

home address and home telephone number, as well as his or her

                                10
social security number, shall not be disclosed,” except under

limited circumstances.    Exec. Order No. 21 ¶ 3, 
34 N.J.R.
 2487(a) (July 5, 2002).

    One month later, the Governor rescinded the above provision

of Executive Order 21 and asked the Privacy Study Commission “to

promptly study the issue of whether and to what extent the home

address and home telephone number of citizens should be made

publicly available by public agencies.”    Exec. Order No. 26 ¶ 5,


34 N.J.R. 3043(b) (Aug. 13, 2002).

    The Commission held hearings and issued a final report in

2004.   It recommended, among other things, that (a) “[h]ome

telephone numbers . . . should not be disclosed”; (b) “[p]ublic

agencies should notify individuals that their home addresses may

be disclosed pursuant to OPRA requests”; (c) “[i]ndividuals

should be permitted to provide an address of record for

disclosure purposes . . . when interacting with public

agencies”; (d) “[t]he Governor or Legislature should establish

objective guidelines defining when and from which government

records home addresses should be redacted”; (e) “[i]ndividuals

should be permitted to opt out of disclosure of their home

addresses”; and (f) “computer systems and applications should be

programmed to collect but not disclose home addresses and

telephone numbers.”   Final Report:   Privacy Study Commission 16

(Dec. 2004), https://dspace.njstatelib.org/xmlui/bitstream/

                                 11
handle/10929/22262/c58152004.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

(emphasis added).

    The Legislature has amended OPRA multiple times since the

report was issued.   See L. 2005, c. 170, § 1; L. 2010, c. 75, §

5; L. 2013, c. 112, § 1; L. 2013, c. 116, § 1; L. 2014, c. 19,

§§ 2, 3; L. 2015, c. 59, § 1; L. 2017, c. 266, § 4.     But neither

the legislative nor the executive branch, by law or executive

order, has adopted the recommendations.

                                IV.

    We review the interpretation of a statute de novo.      Verry

v. Franklin Fire Dist. No. 1, 
230 N.J. 285, 294 (2017); Carter

v. Doe (In re N.J. Firemen’s Ass’n Obligation), 
230 N.J. 258,

273-74 (2017).

    As a threshold matter, the documents sought in this case

qualify as government records under OPRA.   Records of public

auctions of forfeited government property are plainly

“government records” under the law, and no specific exemption

applies.   See 
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1.

    We turn next to the statute’s privacy provision.      The

provision, once again, directs agencies to safeguard personal

information that, if disclosed, “would violate [a] citizen’s

reasonable expectation of privacy.”   
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.    The

trial court considered the Doe factors, found only a limited

privacy interest under the circumstances, and ordered

                                12
disclosure.    The Appellate Division thoroughly examined

defendants’ privacy claim under Burnett and Doe and found

otherwise.

    Burnett involved “a single request for eight million pages

of land title records of all types, extending over a period of

twenty-two years, which contain[ed] names, addresses, social

security numbers, and signatures of countless citizens.”        
198 N.J. at 414.   That information provided a potential roadmap to

identity fraud.     Ibid.   The Court found that the broad request

for detailed personal information implicated OPRA’s privacy

provision, particularly because the records contained social

security numbers.     Id. at 428.

    To balance the statute’s competing aims -- ready access to

government records while safeguarding a citizen’s reasonable

expectation of privacy -- the Court looked to the factors

identified in Doe, 
142 N.J. at 88.       Id. at 428-37.   The Doe

factors call for an examination of

          (1) the type of record requested; (2) the
          information it does or might contain; (3) the
          potential   for   harm   in   any   subsequent
          nonconsensual disclosure; (4) the injury from
          disclosure to the relationship in which the
          record was generated; (5) the adequacy of
          safeguards     to     prevent     unauthorized
          disclosure; (6) the degree of need for access;
          and (7) whether there is an express statutory
          mandate, articulated public policy, or other
          recognized public interest militating toward
          access.


                                    13
         [Id. at 427 (quoting Doe, 
142 N.J. at 88).]

    The Court considered and balanced the factors and concluded

that they weighed in favor of redacting social security numbers

-- not home addresses -- from the requested records, with the

costs passed on to the requestor.     Id. at 437-38.   The Court

limited its holding to the facts of the case:

         a bulk request for millions of realty records,
         spanning decades, which contain a substantial
         number of [social security numbers] the
         requestor does not need, whose dissemination
         via a centralized computer database would pose
         an increased risk of identity theft to
         countless individuals, with no possibility of
         advance notice to those individuals, where the
         request does not further OPRA’s core aim of
         transparency in government.

         [Id. at 437.]

    More recently in Carter, the Court once again turned to the

Doe factors to analyze a privacy claim.     
230 N.J. at 279-80.

The plaintiff sought copies of financial assistance applications

and hardship payments made to firefighters through the Firemen’s

Association.   Id. at 267-68.   The Association noted that the

records sought contained “the complete personal financial

history of individual applicants.”    Id. at 280.   After a review

of the Doe factors, the Court declined to order disclosure of

the records.   Ibid.

    Neither Burnett nor Carter, however, requires courts to

analyze the Doe factors every time a party asserts that a


                                 14
privacy interest exists.    In Asbury Park Press v. County of

Monmouth, for example, the Court ordered disclosure of a

settlement agreement between the County of Monmouth and an

employee.    
201 N.J. 5, 6 (2010).     The employee had filed a

lawsuit claiming sex discrimination, harassment, retaliation,

and a hostile work environment.      Id. at 6.    The County relied on

OPRA’s privacy clause to try to prevent disclosure of the

agreement.   Id. at 6-7.

    Noting that the case was “a far cry from Burnett,” the

Court quickly dispensed with the argument.        Ibid.   The Court

explained that “OPRA’s privacy clause has no application here

because this case does not implicate the concerns raised in

Burnett.”    Id. at 7.   The Court also saw “no reason to analyze

the Doe factors” when “a former county employee chose to file a

public action -- a complaint against the County which was

available to the public” -- and the matter would have unfolded

in open court had the case not settled.       Ibid.   Disclosure of

the settlement, the Court observed, “would not violate any

reasonable expectation of privacy.”       Ibid.

    As OPRA states, it is only “when disclosure . . . would

violate the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy” that a

public agency must safeguard records from public access.


N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 (emphasis added).      When courts interpret a

statute, they strive to give meaning to the Legislature’s intent

                                  15
by following the statute’s plain language if it is clear.

Carter, 
230 N.J. at 274; State v. Morrison, 
227 N.J. 295, 308

(2016).    We therefore find that, before an extended analysis of

the Doe factors is required, a custodian must present a

colorable claim that public access to the records requested

would invade a person’s objectively reasonable expectation of

privacy.

    The custodians in Burnett and Carter raised serious privacy

concerns that established far more than a colorable claim.     The

threshold showing they presented justified a searching analysis

of the Doe factors.   By contrast, the custodian in Asbury Park

Press did not present a colorable privacy claim at the outset.

When a claim of privacy falls short in that way, there is no

need to resort to the Doe factors.

                                 V.

    In this case, defendants did not present a colorable claim

in support of their privacy argument.     Consider the context of

this appeal.   The bidders knew that they were participating in a

public auction.    The use of paddles, a common practice at

auctions, did not suggest otherwise.     And the participants knew

that they were bidding on seized property forfeited to the

government.

    Forfeiture proceedings and public auctions of forfeited

property are not conducted in private.     Before the State can

                                 16
subject property to forfeiture, it must file a complaint and

give notice to “any person known to have a property interest in

the article.”   
N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(a) to (c).     If contested, the

matter is then aired in court.     
N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(f).   In

addition, the Legislature generally requires government entities

to provide public notice in advance of a public auction.       See,

e.g., 
N.J.S.A. 40A:14-157(a); 
N.J.S.A. 52:27B-68; 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-

40.3(b)(1).

    All of those circumstances undermine the notion that a

bidder could reasonably expect the auction in this case would be

cloaked in privacy.   Viewed objectively, it was unreasonable for

a buyer to expect that the information requested would remain

private.   If anything, the sale of government property at a

public auction is a quintessential public event that calls for

transparency.   To guard against possible abuses, the public has

a right to know what property was sold, at what price, and to

whom.   OPRA’s plain terms call for disclosure of that type of

recorded information, including the names and addresses of

successful bidders.   To hold otherwise would jeopardize OPRA’s

purpose:   “to maximize public knowledge about public affairs in

order to ensure an informed citizenry and to minimize the evils

inherent in a secluded process.”      See Mason v. City of Hoboken,


196 N.J. 51, 64 (2008) (quoting Asbury Park Press v. Ocean Cty.

Prosecutor’s Office, 
374 N.J. Super 312, 329 (Law Div. 2004)).

                                 17
    In any event, we agree with Judge Mizdol that the privacy

interest asserted in this case was limited.   We agree as well

that the risk of harm was speculative.   Because we conclude that

disclosure is required under OPRA, we do not reach plaintiff’s

claim under the common law.

                               VI.

    For the reasons set forth above, we reverse the judgment of

the Appellate Division and direct that the records plaintiff

requested be disclosed under OPRA.



     JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA,
SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER’s opinion.




                               18