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November 8, 2010
Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic Takes A Hit in the Courts
The question before the Court in Sussex Commons Associates, LCC. v. Rutgers, the State University, was whether the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) allows examination of records relating to the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic's representation of a client. The short answer to the question is that the act applies to some categories of records.
The plaintiffs (Sussex) are developers who sought records on the Clinic's finances and others regarding the Clinic's representation of two citizens groups that had opposed plaintiff's proposed development of an outlet mall. The request wound up in Court with the developers seeking relief under OPRA and the State's common law right to access. The trial court dismissed the suit, saying that OPRA did not apply to the Clinic. The trial court did not address the common law question in its ruling.
The suit has complex origins. The Clinic represented two citizens groups in administrative hearings and litigation opposing the outlet mall. These are the Coalition to Protect Our Land, Lakes and Watersheds (Coalition) and the Citizens for Responsible Development at Ross' Corner (CRDRC). Sussex later filed separate litigation for tortious interference with Sussex's business against one of its competitors, Chelsea Property Group. In that suit Sussex discovered that Chelsea, gave $16,500 to the citizens groups to fund a traffic study in opposition to the mall. Sussex tried to add the groups and the Clinic to that litigation and sought documents concerning the Clinic's role in the events. The trial judge denied the motions to add parties and ruled that the documents sought were protected under the work-product doctrine. Sussex then made requests for the documents under OPRA and the common law privilege, and filed suit to enforce its request.
On Appeal, the Court held that OPRA applies because it meets the definition of a public agency. The Court then reviewed the possible exemptions which include some documents to personal information and documents relating to the attorney-client privilege. Though acknowledging some documents may fall into the these categories, the Court refused a blanket exemption for Clinic activities. The Court then sent the case back to the trial court for a closer review under OPRA. It also noted that the trial court did not consider the common law component of the request and ordered the trial court to consider that as well.
The opinion is here. [MG]