Not every New Jersey court decision is published in the law books. The vast majority of them are considered “unpublished opinions” and “shall not constitute precedent or be binding upon any court.” See Court Rule 1:36-3. Even though they’re not binding, these unpublished decisions can be persuasive to other courts.
One potentially useful unpublished decision was authored by Union County Superior Court Judge Lisa F. Chrystal on January 15, 2014 in the case of In the Matter of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association To Provide Relief Applications Under The Open Public Records Act, Docket No. UNN-L-2932-13. That decision and order are on-line here.
This is an unusual case because the records custodian, the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, filed the lawsuit in response to a request it received. Typically, it is the requestor that files the lawsuit. The requestor, Jeff Carter of Franklin Township, Somerset County, asked for financial records of “John Doe,” who is “life member of a volunteer fire company located in Fire District No. 1” in Franklin Township who allegedly “was caught viewing and printing pornographic images . . . on the Fire District’s computers” while Doe served as Chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners. Carter certified that he made his request so that he could “publicize that John Doe was receiving hardship benefits for hardship caused by his own actions.”
Judge Chrystal found that under both the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access, John Doe’s interest in privacy outweighed the public’s interest in disclosure. She found that “it is likely that disclosure would impede agency function because it would discourage indigent firemen and their families from applying for much needed aid.”