OPRA sometimes gives specific individuals special or broader access to certain types of records than the public at large. In this post, we discuss one of those special cases.
Under OPRA, a public employee’s personnel records are generally exempt from disclosure, but there are several important "exceptions to the exception.” One of those exceptions is the “individual in interest” exception.
According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10, personnel records are not public records. However, personnel records “shall be accessible” when required to be disclosed by another law, or when disclosure is “essential to the performance of official duties of a person duly authorized by this State or the United States,” or “when authorized by an individual in interest.”
OPRA does not define an “individual in interest.” In our opinion, the term “individual in interest” at least includes public employees when they are requesting copies of their own personnel records. Our view is supported by McGee v. Township of East Amwell, 416 N.J. 602 (App. Div. 2010). In that case, McGee was a public employee who requested access to copies of her own personnel records. The public agency denied access to those records because, among other reasons, they were exempt personnel records. The Court disagreed. The Court quoted a portion of Section 10 that states that “personnel or pension records of any individual shall be accessible . . . when authorized by an individual in interest[.]” The Court referred to McGee as an individual in interest, and stated that the Court was “concerned that a provision intended to protect public employees can be utilized to justify denying them access to information concerning their own employment.” (emphasis added).
Thus, public employees and their representatives may use this Section of OPRA to gain access to records that may not be accessible to the general public.