Agencies May Charge Special Service Charges, But Only In Rare Cases
One question we frequently receive is whether an agency can charge a requestor an hourly rate to respond to an OPRA request. The answer is yes, but only in specific circumstances where a requestor seeks an extraordinarily large volume of records.
N.J.S.A. 47:1A-5(c) provides that:
Whenever the nature, format, manner of collation, or volume of a government record embodied in the form of printed matter to be inspected, examined, or copied pursuant to this section is such that the record cannot be reproduced by ordinary document copying equipment in ordinary business size or involves an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort to accommodate the request, the public agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplicating the record, a special service charge that shall be reasonable and shall be based upon the actual direct cost of providing the copy or copies
Our courts and the Government Records Council consider several factors in determining what constitutes an “extraordinary expenditure of time and effort.” Specifically, they look at:
- The volume of government records involved
- The period of time over which the records were received by the governmental unit
- Whether some or all of the records sought are archived
- The amount of time required for a government employee to locate, retrieve and assemble the documents for inspection or copying, and then return them to their original storage location
- Whether redaction is required
- The size of the agency and number of employees available to accommodate document requests
- The availability of information technology and copying capabilities
In other words, what may be “extraordinary” to one very small agency might be routine to larger agencies.
There are only three published judicial opinions on the issue of special service charges. The Supreme Court permitted a special service charge where millions of microfilmed land records needed to be redacted by an outside vendor. See Burnett v. County of Bergen, 198 N.J. 408 (2008) (permitting the agency to pass along the actual cost to the requestor). The Appellate Division permitted a special service charge where deputy attorney generals spent over 55 hours reviewing and redacting 15,000 emails. Fisher v. Division of Law, 400 N.J. Super. 61, 65 (App. Div. 2008). Finally, the Law Division permitted a special service charge where the requestor sought six-and-a-half years of legal invoices by four different law firms, which totaled thousands of redacted pages. See Courier Post v. Lenape Reg’l High Sch., 360 N.J. Super. 191, 199 (Law Div. 2002).
Generally, however, most special service decisions reside with the GRC. Though they are not precedential in court, the decisions are instructive. Recently, in Rozzi v. Lacey Twp. Bd. of Educ., GRC Complaint No. 2015-224 (Jan. 31, 2007), the GRC ruled that a school board could not charge a special service charge for a request where it took the agency four hours to retrieve 37 pages of records from storage. Even though the custodian certified that the requested checks were difficult to locate in numerous boxes in the agency’s storage site, the GRC held that “given the amount of time expended, just over half of a working date, in tandem with the number of responsive records (37 pages) that were not redacted, and the resources available to the school district [(a district with 3,000 students and a $60 million budget)], the evidence of record does not support that the special service charge was warranted or reasonable due to an ‘extraordinary amount of time and effort.’”
As a general rule, most GRC decisions have found no special service charge was warranted where a request took less than ten to twenty hours to fulfill, but response times above ten hours may invoke a special service charge for small agencies. See Diamond v. Twp. of Old Bridge, GRC Complaint No. 2003-15 (Feb. 18, 2014) (holding 4 hours of time did not justify special service charge); Carter v. Franklin Fire District No. 1, GRC Complaint No. 2013-281/2013-282/2013-283 (Oct. 28, 2014) (holding no special service charge warranted for nearly roughly 8 hours of time to search for emails); Verry v. Borough of South Bound Brook, GRC Complaint No. 2010-105/2010-106. Compare Loder v. County of Passaic, GRC Complaint No. 2005-161 (Feb. 8, 2016) (permitting special service charge where it took 32 hours to review thousands of pages); Vessio v. Twp. of Barnegat, GRC Complaint No. 2006-70 (April 25, 2007)(permitting special service charge where request took 14 hours of review in small agency); Renna v. County of Union, GRC Complaint No.: 2004-134 (April 11, 2006) (permitting service charge for nearly 40 hours of time to compile records.).
Often, agencies hold the records “hostage” unless the requestor first pays the fee. Luckily, our courts have held that paying the fee in order to gain access to the records does not mean that a requestor forfeits the right to challenge the fee in court and get a refund.
For more information about this blog post or any other OPRA question, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.