Appellate Division Rules Agencies Cannot Hide Behind Technology
Last week, the Appellate Division issued a published decision that is very important to transparency. While the court's analysis of its standard of review over GRC decisions will excite appellate attorneys, it is the more substantive portion of the court's decision that grabbed our attention.
The case is Conley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corrections, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. Jan. 12, 2018), and it involves an OPRA request that was filed by Kevin Conley, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison.
Mr. Conley's OPRA request sought “monthly remedy statistical reports” that were required to be produced by N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.8(a)(4) and other federal laws. He had requested these reports in the past and they were always produced, but this time the DOC responded by saying that it had adopted a new computerized database in January 2014 and the requested monthly reports "are no longer generated or available."
Mr. Conley objected, noting that he had always gotten the reports before and that the DOC was mandated by law to produce these monthly reports. The DOC continued to deny the request, insisting that it no longer generates the reports and that it was not obligated to "create a record."
Mr. Conley filed a complaint on his own in the Government Records Council (tip: we advise going to court instead!) and lost. The GRC accepted the DOC Custodian's certification that it did not possess the monthly reports and ruled that it did not violate OPRA.
The Appellate Division reversed the GRC. It noted that the DOC was mandated by federal and State regulations to make the monthly reports. It held that were it to accept the DOC's argument that the report was no longer available based on the manner by which DOC chose to store this public data, it would render "the public policy of transparency and openness the Legislature codified in [OPRA] unacceptably vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation."
Importantly, the Court held that “[t]echnological advancements in data storage should enhance, not diminish, the public’s right to access ‘government records’ under OPRA . . . . A government agency cannot erect technological barriers to deny access to government records.”
What does this mean for OPRA requestors? This case builds upon the Supreme Court's recent holding in Paff v. Galloway, which held that electronically stored information is a government record that must be produced. Where an agency is obligated by law to produce a certain type of report or a specific document each month (or year) and it fails to do so because it has moved to an electronic database, it cannot avoid its obligations under OPRA. It would need to pull data from its database to produce the report/document to the requestor.