Lately, I’ve been endeavoring to use OPRA to dislodge settlements of lawsuits where at least one of the parties is a government agency, official or employee. Some of the agreements, like the one in the following news article, contain confidentiality clauses that prevent the parties from discussing the settlement terms. Others don’t have confidential clauses but the public and media are often not aware of them because of the length of time–often years–between a suit’s filing and the settlement. When I flush out a settlement agreement, I put it on-line, notify the local media and place an article on my blog.

Below is a news article on a confidential settlement agreement I recently learned about. It discloses that Mount Holly Township paid $75,000 to a local couple who had sued Township officials about how they were treated when a dispute arose over whose responsibility is was to replace a substandard sidewalk. The civil complaint and the confidential settlement agreement mentioned in the article are on-line here.

Mount Holly settles civil rights lawsuit
Burlington County Times

MOUNT HOLLY — A federal civil rights lawsuit that pitted a Garden Street couple against town hall has been settled with the township admitting no wrongdoing, but paying the residents $75,000 in a confidential agreement.

The settlement between the township and Andrew and Alda Copeland was signed in September, but made public only this month after the chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project requested and received documents through the state’s Open Public Records Act.

John Paff said the group seeks to increase governmental transparency and accountability.

He has now posted the settlement on the group’s Web site.

According to court documents, the township agreed to pay the Copelands $75,000 and repair the sidewalk adjacent to their home on the 500 block of Garden Street.

The repair of the buckling sidewalk, which is on public property, had been in dispute since at least 2005. The township cited the couple for the sidewalk, saying it was a safety hazard and the residents’ responsibility to fix it per township ordinance.

In 2006, a Superior Court judge dismissed the citation after the Copelands, representing themselves, argued that they should not be responsible for repairs of public property.

A year later, the Copelands filed the federal suit, claiming racial discrimination and township retaliation for them speaking out at public meetings and in the press. The Copelands are black.

“The township denies each and every allegation,” the confidential settlement reads.

“…The township expressly denies that it committed any wrongdoing.”

The settlement requires all parties to keep the terms confidential. The agreement specifically prohibited the township or the residents from taking “any action to affirmatively notify the news media of the resolution of this action.”

“If asked … [the Copelands and the township] will state only that the matter is settled, and that the settlement is satisfactory,” according to court documents.

Originally distributed on January 3, 2009

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]