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Higg-A-Rella Inc. v. County of Essex

Decided: March 31, 1993.

HIGG-A-RELLA, INC., T/A STATE INFORMATION SERVICE, BLAU APPRAISAL COMPANY, AND ROBERT D. BLAU, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF ESSEX, ET ALS., DEFENDANTS



Yanoff, J.s.c. t/a (Retired, on recall).

Yanoff

Opinion

This matter comes before me on reciprocal summary judgment motions. There is no dispute as to the facts, so summary Disposition is appropriate. The facts are as follows:

Plaintiff, Higg-a-Rella, Inc.,*fn1 t/a State Information Service, is in the business of providing ready access to real estate tax assessment records. Its clients include real estate brokers and attorneys. It sells this information either in printout form or by modem, which is connected to plaintiffs' computer. Plaintiffs have obtained this type of material from other counties for what seems to the court a nominal consideration. Plaintiffs bring this action to compel Essex County and defendant municipalities to provide it with a copy of the one-half inch mainframe computer tape on which is entered the real estate tax assessments of each municipality in Essex County, except Newark. The assessor of each

municipality is required by N.J.S.A. 54:4-35 to "file with the [county board of taxation] his complete assessment list, and a true copy thereof" by January 10 of each year. The Essex County Board of Taxation has contracted with the Essex County College to feed this information into a computer tape. This is used by the municipalities and the County Board.

At oral argument, plaintiffs' attorney agreed, without concession, as to amount, or item, that reasonable compensation should be paid for the computer tape, and that this exceeded the cost of the tape itself.

The precise issue therefore is whether plaintiffs may compel delivery of the intellectual property which is crystallized in the tape to itself. It is agreed that plaintiffs are entitled to examine and copy all tax lists maintained by each municipality in the County, as well as the County Tax Board, under the Right to Know Act (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-2), and common law regarding public records. This includes the right to have the records photocopied. Moore v. Bd. of Freeholders of Mercer County, 39 N.J. 26, 186 A.2d 676 (1962).

The scope of the Right to Know Act ("RKL") N.J.S.A. 47:1A-2, recently was examined by the Appellate Division in Shuttleworth v. City of Camden, 258 N.J. Super. 573, 610 A.2d 903 (App.Div.1992), a case in which a newspaper sought access to, and review of, police files and an autopsy report. In that case, Judge Stern, for the court, carefully defined rights under RKL and also the common law, writing:

A citizen has a common-law right to inspect public documents if they are public records, if the citizen has requisite interest to inspect the records, and if the interest in disclosure outweighs the need for confidentiality. The definition of "public record" in this context is broader than under the RKL; . . .

These materials include almost every document recorded, generated, or produced by public officials, whether or not required by law to be made, maintained or kept on file[.] Ibid. 582-83, 610 A.2d 903. Citations omitted.

With regard to RKL, he continued:

If a document is a "public record" access to it is an absolute right unless a specific exception applies. Techniscan v. Passaic Valley ...


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