In enacting the Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, the New Jersey Legislature sought to maximize the public’s knowledge of public affairs. To do that, OPRA broadly defines “government records” and provides that they are generally accessible to the public. However, the public’s right to government records is not absolute, as OPRA exempts numerous categories of documents and information from disclosure. In Kovalcik v. Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, ___ N.J. ___ (2011), the Supreme Court interpreted two such exemption provisions: N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, which exempts from disclosure government records that were found to be confidential in a court order, and N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, which exempts personnel records from disclosure.
The plaintiff, Vasil Kovalcik, was indicted for several crimes. The investigation leading to his indictment was performed in part by Kristin Houck and Jorge Ramos, two detectives from defendant Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office. During the criminal proceedings, the plaintiff filed a motion seeking the production of the detectives’ CVs and a list of courses that they had taken concerning interrogation and confessions. The trial court orally denied that motion, but before a written order was entered the plaintiff submitted an OPRA request that sought those same documents. The custodian of records advised that there were no such records but that even if they existed they would be exempt from disclosure.
The plaintiff then filed an action in the Law Division, proceeding by way of Order to Show Cause and Verified Complaint, seeking the production of the disputed records. Initially, the defendant indicated that there were no such records, but eventually some responsive documents were located. The documents were provided to the judge to review in camera.
The trial court denied the plaintiff’s request for an order compelling the production of the documents. First, the court ruled that the criminal court’s denial of the plaintiff’s motion to compel was not an order of confidentiality under OPRA’s exemption. However, the court determined that the located documents concerning courses taken by Houck were exempt from disclosure, and that an exception to that exemption regarding records dealing with qualifications for employment did not apply.
The Appellate Division affirmed in part and reversed in part. Specifically, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the document was not protected by an order of confidentiality, but reversed the trial court’s determination that Houck’s course list was an exempt personnel record.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by reviewing the underlying purpose of OPRA and its various provisions. The Court then turned to the Prosecutor’s Office’s argument that because the documents were the subject of the plaintiff’s failed motion to compel in the criminal proceedings, they were exempt from disclosure under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1. The Court explained that provision exempted information that is deemed confidential by a court order from meeting the definition of “government record,” thereby precluding access to such documents. The Court rejected the notion the criminal judge’s order denying the plaintiff’s motion to compel was the equivalent of a confidentiality order under OPRA. The Court concluded that “[o]ur review of the record and the plain language of OPRA as found in the exemption from disclosure of documents protected by an order of confidentiality, see N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, makes it clear that the order denying the motion to compel entered in the criminal proceeding does not suffice to exempt the contested documents from disclosure.”
Next, the Court turned to the Prosecutor’s Office’s assertion that the personnel records exemption shielded the documents from disclosure under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10. The Court noted that pursuant to that exemption, personnel records are not considered to be government records and are thereby not subject to disclosure. However, the provision also states that if a document otherwise classified as a personnel record fits within one of the exceptions to the exemption, then it could be disclosed. The exception to the exemption at issue provides: “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[.]”
The Court observed that the document concerning Houck’s pre-employment training and education was a personnel record that was exempt from disclosure unless it satisfied the exception. With respect to that question, the Court stated that “the document in dispute can only be found to be within the exception to the exemption if it discloses, and only to the extent it discloses, that Detective Houck had completed specific training or education that was required for her employment as a detective with the Prosecutor’s Office. As the statutory language makes plain, if the detective voluntarily attended courses other than those that were required of her, the documents revealing that information remain within the broadly-worded exemption and not subject to disclosure.” Because of deficiencies in the record, the Court was “constrained to remand this matter to the trial court for a further proceeding during which the parties shall be given an adequate opportunity to marshal sufficient proofs as to the nature of the contents of the particular documents and the specific educational requirements for employment as a detective in the Prosecutor’s Office to enable the court to apply the statute in accordance with the analysis we have set forth.”