from the when-the-government-becomes-the-vexatious-litigant dept
Open records requests and lawsuits go hand-in-hand. Agencies obfuscate, stall, perform deliberately inadequate searches and fail to respond in a timely manner. These actions frequently result in lawsuits, which are notably almost always filed by the requester.
The Hamilton Township of New Jersey isn't like other government agencies. It's far more proactive.
In March, a private citizen named Harry Scheeler Jr. sent a request to Hamilton Township for surveillance footage of the town-hall and police-department buildings, making the request under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the state common law right of access to public records. A few weeks later, instead of responding to the request, the township sued Scheeler and asked a local court for relief from any obligation to respond, then or in the future. The township also asked for attorney’s fees.As Jonathan Peters at the Columbia Journalism Review points out, this isn't the first time this has happened, but it is incredibly rare and it almost always ends badly for the agency instigating the legal action. This case is no different, although it did manage to survive long enough for Scheeler to narrow his request in hopes of having the lawsuit dropped. The township was very persistent, unfortunately. But unfortunately for the township, the presiding judge recognized how truly effed-up it would be to allow this suit to continue or otherwise encourage government agencies to sue open records requesters.
Scheeler asserts that the Township has no authority to seek relief from the records request in court; that only the requestor has such a right. Consequently, before reaching the merits of the request, the threshold issue that the court addresses in this opinion is whether a government agency, such as the plaintiff, may file a lawsuit against a person requesting public records, or whether the right to institute a lawsuit determining the validity of the request belongs solely to the requestor. The court concludes that the right to bring the issue to court belongs exclusively to the requestor, not the government agency.New Jersey's open records law -- like those everywhere in the US -- provides for the filing of legal complaints against unresponsive government agencies. What the law doesn't provide for is the township's actions. In lieu of a response, it sought an injunction barring not only this request, but any future requests for similar information by Scheeler. As the court points out, this is about as far-removed from the intention of open records laws as anyone can get.
To allow a government agency to file a lawsuit against someone who has submitted a request for government records would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on those who desire to submit such a request, undercutting the public policy previously described.Now, not only has the temporary restraining order against Scheeler been lifted, but the township will be paying his legal fees as well. The court notes that not doing so would basically allow government agencies to trap citizens in "quixotic battles" against entities with "almost inexhaustible resources." Because Scheeler was "trapped" by a lawsuit he didn't initiate and one that pertained to the government's obligation to turn over requested documents, the presiding judge reads the fee-shifting provision of the state's open records law as applicable to legal fees. To do otherwise, the court points out, would be reward the township for violating open records laws.
A government agency's lawsuit against document requestors subjects them to involuntary litigation with all of its concomitant financial, temporal, and emotional trimmings. A public policy that gives a government agency the right to sue a person who asks for a government document is the antithesis of the policy underlying both OPRA and the common law to provide citizens with a means of access to public information to keep government activities open and hold the government accountable.