JACKSON-Jackson Township officials have lost their case against a man who claimed the township was keeping public documents away from him illegally after a judge ordered the release of the documents and the payment of the plaintiff’s legal fees.
Jackson Township will be paying the legal fees of Steven Wronko who sued the township and the town clerk, Ann Marie Eden after being denied documents requested through the Open Public Records Act.
Wronko was denied the documents after requesting a year’s worth of attorney’s invoices from the township in 2015.
According to the lawsuit, Wronko requested “[c]opies of all attorney invoices for Jackson Township from January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2015,” and “[c]opies of all litigation settlement agreements from January 1, 2010 through December 19, 2015 for Holmdel Township.”
Eden, the township clerk denied the request because she claimed Wronko did not identify a specific case or matter. Initially, his case was dismissed by the judge, but he appealed the judge’s ruling.
He argued that his request was valid pursuant to Burnett v. County of Gloucester.
He claimed that his request was sufficiently clear and not overly broad. Wronko blamed the denial on the township’s unwillingness to do the work involved to fulfill the requests.
He said that the judge erred by concluding the request might result in the production of a large number of documents. The courts agreed with Wronko.
“We have determined requests that identified a specific subject matter with sufficient identifying information were not overly broad even where a custodian was required to search and locate records according to a specific topic area,” the judge said. “For example, OPRA permitted a request for ‘[a]ny and all settlements, releases or similar documents entered into, approved or accepted from [January 1, 2006] to present.’ The fact that the plaintiff did not ‘specify[ ] the matters to which the settlements pertained did not render his request a general request for information obtained through research, rather than a request for a specific record.'”
“With these guiding principles in mind, we conclude plaintiff’s OPRA request complied with the statute and governing case law,” the court said.
The township will now be forced to reimburse Wronko $30,000 in legal fees. The township council will officially approve the settlement on Tuesday.