On March 7, 2022, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County. In this case, Libertarians asked for a copy of a settlement agreement that resolved an internal disciplinary matter regarding a corrections officer. The records custodian denied access to the settlement agreement. Libertarians filed a denial of access complaint to compel disclosure. The trial court agreed that a redacted version of the settlement agreement should be produced.
The records custodian appealed. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed and held that the settlement agreement was a personnel record and was not a government record. Libertarians requested that the Supreme Court accept the case, which it did. In a 6-0 decision (one seat on the Court is currently vacant), the Supreme Court held that certain information in personnel records “qualify” as a government record, including a person’s name, title, date of separation and the reason for the separation. Because the settlement agreement contained information that is a public record, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division and ordered that a redacted version of the settlement agreement should be produced to Libertarians.
In our view, this case clarified the circumstances under which personnel records may be disclosed. While the line between settlements that are public and those that are private can get a little blurry, the Court specifically stated that in making its decision it was not relying on the line of cases that state that settlement agreements involving public entities are public records. Rather, the Court relied solely on OPRA’s statement that a public employee’s name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason for the separation are public records.
This decision will open the door to access to portions of records, including settlements, that previously were treated as confidential.