July 5, 2012
NJ Supreme Court Rules Public School Clinic Records Are Not Subject to Open Records Request
A case came out of the New Jersey Supreme Court this morning that essentially limits disclosure of law school clinic case files via FOIA request. The law in question is the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13. A developer sued for the records after they were initially denied by the University. The Clinic was representing parties that opposed the development of a mall planned by the developer. The request was designed to uncover if attorneys for one of the parties was working with or assisting the Clinic and the substance of those communications. The trial court dismissed the suit but the Appellate Court reversed.
The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the records sought were not subject to OPRA. The Court acknowledges that the statute has broad application. Rutgers, however, is a unique entity which the Court calls a public and private institution. This is based on Rutgers’ status as a private institution before it joined the state supported education system. Earlier precedent by the Court held that a clinical professor was not subject to the State’s conflict of interest laws when the clinic represented a private party before a state agency. The legislature never overturned that holding when it drafted OPRA in 2001. Therefore the reasoning of that case applied to the records request.
The Court also notes the resulting administrative burden on clinics to answer such requests. The fact that a public school would be required to disclose information and a private school would not leads to absurd results. The Court said the legislature would not have intended that. In any event, law school clinical programs do not perform government functions, thus disclosure of client files would not further the purpose of OPRA. The common law right of access does not apply for the same reason.