Articles Posted in Government & Administrative Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) required disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property. An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts. The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The Supreme Court determined courts were not required to analyze the "Doe" factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists. "A party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy." Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing. "It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property -- including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property -- will remain private. Without a review of the Doe factors, we find that OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction." The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) required disclosure of the names and addresses of successful bidders at a public auction of government property. An auction was held at the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute to sell sports memorabilia seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. There were thirty-nine successful bidders. Plaintiff William Brennan submitted a request to the Prosecutor’s Office, based on OPRA and the common law, for “[r]ecords of payment received from all winning bidders” and “[c]ontact information for each winning bidder.” The Prosecutor’s Office offered redacted copies of receipts that did not include the buyers’ names or addresses. The Office explained that it had sent the buyers letters to ask if they would consent to disclosure of their personal information. For buyers who consented, the Office represented it would provide unredacted receipts. The trial court directed defendants to release the requested information under OPRA. The Supreme Court determined courts were not required to analyze the "Doe" factors each time a party asserts that a privacy interest exists. "A party must first present a colorable claim that public access to records would invade a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy." Here, defendants could not make that threshold showing. "It is not reasonable to expect that details about a public auction of government property -- including the names and addresses of people who bought the seized property -- will remain private. Without a review of the Doe factors, we find that OPRA calls for disclosure of records relating to the auction." The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Division. View "Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office" on Justia Law

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The New Jersey State Health Benefits Commission (SHBC) and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission (SEHBC) (collectively, the Commissions) administered the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program (SHBP) and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program (SEHBP), respectively. At issue was the method used by the Commissions to correct erroneously tiered reimbursement rates previously applied to members’ out-of-pocket expenses for out-of-network behavioral health services. In a separate matter involving a single plan member, the tiered reimbursement schedule was determined to have violated N.J.S.A. 52:14-17.46.7, which addressed the calculation of reimbursement rates for out-of-network health benefit services. Following that decision, the Commissions permitted members who paid for out-of-pocket behavioral health services and did not receive a proper reimbursement to obtain retroactive reimbursement for charges incurred between May 2009 and March 2014. The challenge before the New Jersey Supreme Court centered on the reasonableness of the Commissions’ notice to members who may have been affected by the application of the erroneous reimbursement rates. The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s holding and remanded the matter to the Commissions for further proceedings. “Significant questions exist concerning the extent of the notice actually provided, either by the Commissions or through their agents to active employees, former employees, and retirees, a hearing is necessary.” View "In the Matter of State and School Employees' Health Benefits Commissions' Implementation of I/M/O Philip Yucht" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review focused on state action based on, among other grounds, the Religious Aid Clause of Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, specifically its prohibition against the use of public funds “for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” The challenge arose following the Secretary of Higher Education’s (Secretary) determination to award grant monies to a yeshiva and to a theological seminary as part of a state program to subsidize facility and infrastructure projects for higher education institutions. The Appellate Division determined that prior case law concerning the New Jersey Constitution’s Religious Aid Clause required invalidation of the grants to the yeshiva and theological seminary. The State maintained the proper constitutional analysis in this matter turned on the use to which these higher education institutions would put the monies, not the nature of the institutions themselves. The Supreme Court determined judicial review was premature because factual disputes required resolution before the Secretary could make a properly informed decision on the grant applications. Because an informed administrative decision could not have been made without the benefit of a proper record, the matter was remanded to the Secretary, in order that a contested case proceeding be conducted prior to the ultimate administrative decision of the Secretary concerning the challenged grants. View "American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Hendricks" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Jaclyn Thompson alleged that she was mentally disabled as a result of three incidents at work. Petitioner was a health and physical education teacher. She taught regular gym classes, coached, and served as an advisor and mentor. She also taught gym classes specifically geared toward students with disabilities. During three of petitioner’s classes, students punched, slapped, or pushed her. Petitioner sustained no physical injuries in the three incidents, and she required no medical treatment. Petitioner filed a request for accidental disability retirement benefits based on the three incidents. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Board of Trustees of the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (Board) denied her request for accidental disability benefits but found petitioner qualified for a deferred retirement. Petitioner argued she met the requirement for mental disability because the incidents involved physical contact. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found petitioner did not meet the standard for accidental disability benefits. However, the ALJ granted her ordinary disability benefits. The ALJ found that she suffered from PTSD, that medication was ineffective at abating her symptoms, and that she was totally and permanently disabled from the performance of her regularly assigned duties. Petitioner appealed the denial of accidental disability benefits. The Board affirmed the ALJ. Petitioner then appealed to the Appellate Division. The majority of the panel affirmed. Finding no abuse of discretion, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "Thompson v. Board of Trustees, Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund" on Justia Law

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From 2012 to 2015, Morris County, New Jersey awarded $4.6 million in taxpayer funds to repair twelve churches, as part of a historic preservation program. This appeal raised two questions for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration: whether the grant program violated the Religious Aid Clause of the New Jersey Constitution and, if so, whether the Religious Aid Clause conflicts with the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the Religious Aid Clause has been a part of New Jersey’s history since the 1776 Constitution. The clause guaranteed that “[n]o person shall . . . be obliged to pay . . . taxes . . . for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry.” The clause reflected a historic and substantial state interest. The Court found the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program "ran afoul of that longstanding provision." Morris County and the grant recipients claimed that to withhold grants from eligible churches would violate their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The County and the churches relied heavily on Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, 582 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 2012 (2017), as grounds for their argument. The New Jersey Court determined that all of the defendant churches had active congregations, and all conducted regular worship services in one or more structures repaired with grant funds. Several churches specifically explained that they sought funds in order to be able to continue to host religious services. "We do not believe Trinity Lutheran would require that grants be considered and extended to religious institutions under those circumstances." Therefore the New Jersey Court reversed the trial court’s decision to uphold the grants. View "Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders" on Justia Law

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The case stemmed from a 2010 fire in the City of Paterson (City) that consumed a multi-unit home owned by Florence Brown, taking the lives of four residents and injuring several others as they made their escape. During the lengthy proceedings below, a question arose of whether the City and its electrical inspector, Robert Bierals—alleged by the plaintiffs to be at least partially at fault for the fire, were entitled to qualified or absolute immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA). During discovery, Bierals and the City moved for summary judgment on immunity grounds. The trial court ruled that Bierals and the City were entitled only to qualified immunity and denied their motions. After the close of discovery, Bierals and the City again moved for summary judgment. A different judge granted the motion, ruling that they were entitled to absolute immunity. Because the critical causative conduct in this case was a failure to enforce the law, the New Jersey Supreme Court concluded Bierals was entitled to absolute immunity. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division and entered judgment in favor of Bierals and the City. View "Lee v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Sixteen-year-old A.F. and her infant son lived with her biological mother, A.B., in an apartment owned by A.B.’s sister, J.F. In 2012, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (the Division) received a referral that A.F. had run away with her infant son in September 2012. The Division dispatched a caseworker to interview A.B. at her apartment. A.B. disclosed that A.F. had run away several days earlier when A.B. took away A.F.’s laptop and cellphone as punishment for being suspended from school. The caseworker went to the high school and met with A.F. During this meeting, A.F. related that she had been staying with various friends since leaving home. A.F. indicated that she had previously returned home to reconcile with A.B. and that they had gone together to the school to have A.F. reinstated. Near the end of the conference, A.F. expressed that she had “no intention of returning to her mom’s home,” and in fact did not. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether defendant A.B. abused or neglected A.F.; that A.B. willfully abandoned A.F.; and that remarks attributed to A.B.’s sister, J.F., were subject to suppression as embedded hearsay. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division majority’s judgment that the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency met its burden of proof concerning A.B.’s abuse or neglect of A.F. The Court found insufficient proof of willful abandonment and therefore reversed on that issue. The Court also found the hearsay evidence was properly suppressed. View "New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. A.B." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether the 2000 and 2001 financial agreements between plaintiffs EQR-Lincoln Urban Renewal Jersey City, LLC (EQR-Lincoln), and EQR-LPC Urban Renewal North Pier, LLC (EQR-North Pier), and defendant, the City of Jersey City (City), incorporated 2003 amendments to the Long Term Tax Exemption (LTTE) Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:20-1 to -22. Plaintiffs were limited liability companies that qualified as urban renewal entities under the LTTE Law. Each plaintiff entered into a separate financial agreement with the City to obtain a property tax exemption relating to an urban renewal project involving construction of an apartment building. Among other things, the financial agreements required plaintiffs to pay the City an “annual service charge” in lieu of property taxes. Plaintiffs filed a two-count complaint seeking a declaratory judgment against the City seeking: (1) a judgment declaring that the applicable law and financial agreements permitted plaintiffs to pay “excess rent” to affiliated entities under certain ground leases, with the effect of eliminating the “excess net profit” that plaintiffs might otherwise owe to the City; and (2) a judgment declaring that the parties’ financial agreements incorporated future changes to applicable law, such that plaintiffs could calculate their “allowable profit rate” in accordance with the 2003 amendments to the LTTE Law. The trial judge granted partial summary judgment on Count II, reasoning that the express language of the contract, “as amended and supplemented,” demonstrated that the parties agreed to incorporate future amendments to the LTTE Law in their financial agreements. The trial judge further concluded that the 2003 amendments to the LTTE Law applied to the financial agreements, and that legislative history supported his conclusions. The trial judge denied the City’s motion for reconsideration. The Appellate Division reversed, finding LTTE Law did not sanction plaintiffs’ unilateral changes to their financial agreements. The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division. View "EQR-LPC Urban Renewal North Pier, LLC v. City of Jersey City" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was a judgment requiring the release, pursuant to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), of the constitution and bylaws of a volunteer fire company that was a member of a fire district established pursuant to N.J.S.A.40A:14-70. The New Jersey Supreme Court held the fire district, to which the OPRA request was made, was obliged to release such documents in its possession or to obtain them from a member volunteer fire company under its supervision and release them. "OPRA demands such transparency and accountability of public agencies, and the fire district is undoubtedly a public agency subject to OPRA." However, to the extent the holding under review also concluded that the member volunteer fire company was a public agency subject directly and independently to OPRA requirements, the Supreme Court disagreed and modified the judgment below accordingly. View "Verry v. Franklin Fire District No. 1" on Justia Law