Former Rutgers Graduate Student Can Obtain His Own Student Records Under OPRA

Doe v. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2021). Today, the Appellate Division, speaking through Judge Sumners, issued a decision under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 et seq. (“OPRA”). Plaintiff, formerly a student at the university’s Graduate School of Business, made several OPRA requests. The first of those requests included, but went well beyond, plaintiff’s own student records. A second request sought copies of specific Rutgers administrators’ and faculty members’ disclosable employment records. There were three other requests as well.

Rutgers responded that it would provide documents in response to the second request “as soon as is practicable.” The university declined to provide documents as to the other requests, asserting that they were overbroad, required research by the university’s document custodian, or did not clearly specify the materials sought.

Rutgers ultimately produced documents responsive to the second request about 45 days after that request was made. Meanwhile, however, within a few days of the original requests, plaintiff filed suit to obtain all the records. The Law Division upheld the university’s position as to the requests other than the second request. The court also denied attorneys’ fees for obtaining the materials covered by the second request.

Plaintiff appealed, and today the Appellate Division rendered a mixed ruling. Applying de novo review, Judge Sumners concluded that plaintiff was entitled to his own student records of various types. Though OPRA exempts records kept by “‘any public institution of higher education, . . . deemed to be privileged and confidential[,]’ such as ‘information concerning student records or grievance or disciplinary proceedings against a student to the extent disclosure would reveal the identity of the student,” that did not prevent disclosure to a student of that student’s own records.

Rutgers argued that the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (“FERPA”) precluded that result. Judge Sumners did not agree. “FERPA is a funding statute with corresponding regulations establishing procedures for administrative enforcement and administrative remedies for improper disclosure of student records, ” but it “does not itself establish procedures for disclosure of school records.”

The panel agreed with Rutgers as to the other issues, though. The remainder of the first request, and all the others besides the second request, to which the university responded voluntarily, were improper for various reasons.

The remaining issue was whether plaintiff could recover attorneys’ fees, either as to those requests or for having obtained the documents covered by the second request. The panel remanded the questions involving fees to the Law Division for further consideration.