OPRA Covers Electronically Stored Information, Including Fields in E-Mails

Paff v. Galloway Tp., 229 N.J. 340 (2017).  In this OPRA case, as discussed here, plaintiff sought to obtain copies of fields in e-mails sent by the Galloway Township Clerk and the Township’s Police Chief during a two-week period in 2013.  Plaintiff did not seek the e-mails themselves, but only the “sender,” “recipient,” “date,” and “subject” fields of those e-mails.  The Township rejected the request on the ground that it would require the Township to create new records.

Plaintiff sued and won in the Law Division, but the Appellate Division reversed in an opinion reported at 444 N.J. Super. 495 (App. Div. 2016).  The core of that ruling was that “OPRA only allows requests for records, not requests for information.”  Plaintiff sought Supreme Court review, and today the Court reversed the Appellate Division and ruled for plaintiff in a unanimous opinion by Justice Albin.

This was an issue of statutory interpretation, which the Court analyzed de novo.  OPRA defines “government records” as including “information stored or maintained electronically” by a municipality.  Relying on both the language of the statute and “the historical background that impelled the Legislature to pass OPRA,” Justice Albin found that the e-mail fields were “government records.”  He rejected the Appellate Division’s view as “overly constrictive.”

In denying plaintiff’s OPRA request, the Township had relied on an opinion that it had obtained from the Government Records Council (“GRC”).  The GRC is an agency created under OPRA to, among other things, offer guidance regarding compliance with that statute.  The GRC told the Township only that the Township was not “required to create new records in response to an OPRA request.”  The GRC did not analyze the specific facts of this case, and in fact cautioned the Township that the GRC’s guidance “did not constitute legal advice.”  In any event, the OPRA statute provides that a GRC decision “shall not have value as a precedent for any case initiated in Superior Court.”  Justice Albin noted that “if the Superior Court is to give no weight to a GRC decision, then informal guidance from the GRC can stand in no better position.”  Accordingly, the Court declined to defer to the GRC’s guidance.

Though today’s opinion held that e-mail fields are “government records” covered by OPRA, Justice Albin observed that that did not resolve the entire case.  The Township asserted that the requested records might be subject to OPRA exceptions, exemptions, or redactions.  Those potential issues were not fully explored before the trial court.  The Supreme Court remanded the matter for further proceedings, at which the Township could try to show that there were grounds (other than its failed argument that the e-mail fields were not “government records”) not to provide the requested records to plaintiff.