Accessing Personnel Records
OPRA’s personnel records exemption, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, renders most personnel records generally exempt from access under OPRA. The exemption contains three exceptions, however.
The first exception provides that:
“an individual’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor, and the amount and type of any pension received shall be a government record.”
This provision obviously means that requests for an employee’s individual paystub or an agency’s weekly, monthly, or year-end payroll reports are available. Additionally, an agency must disclose each employee’s date of hire, title, position, salary, and date of separation. All of this information is important to know, as payroll is often one of the biggest expenditure in most agency budgets.
Within the next year, we should see resolution on what the phrase “date of separation and the reason therefor” means because the Supreme Court has granted certification in a case that asks the “name” of a state trooper who was “required to separate from employment” due to racially offensive behavior. We believe this provision permits the public to learn about employees who engage in misconduct. For more information about that case and the issue the Supreme Court will be deciding, please read our prior blog.
The second exception provides that:
“personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible when required to be disclosed by another law, when disclosure is essential to the performance of official duties of a person duly authorized by this State or the United States, or when authorized by an individual in interest.”
This exception has been largely un-litigated and thus the courts have still not defined the scope of this exception. In McGee v. Twp. of E. Amwell, 416 N.J. Super. 602 (App. Div. 2010), the Appellate Division held that emails about an employee were “personnel records” even though they were not filed in a personnel folder and that Exception 2 would permit the employee to request them because she would be an “individual in interest” who could authorize the release. Other courts have ruled similarly—employees can request their own personnel records, which includes emails that discuss their performance.
The third exception provides that:
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, shall be a government record.
In Kovalcik v. Somerset Cty. Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581 (2011), the Supreme Court held that this exception does not authorize disclosure of all records that “evidence an employee’s educational background or even that evidence an employee’s participation in educational pursuits generally.” Rather, the Court held that the exception makes available only records “that would demonstrate that a government employee lacked a required credential and therefore failed to meet the minimum qualifications for the position.”
In other words, if there is a certain training certificate, license, or degree that must be obtained in order to hold a government position (or to receive a promotion), then the public is entitled to access documents that prove whether or not the employee meets those requirements. Thus, because all police officers in New Jersey are required to take use of force trainings, the public is entitled to obtain documents proving those courses were taken. But, if an officer takes an optional course those records are not subject to OPRA, even if the agency paid for the training. (You can, of course, request a copy of the invoice or other financial documents that prove how much was spent).
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