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Keddie v. Rutgers

January 4, 1996


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Approved for Publication January 4, 1996.

Before Judges Shebell, Wallace and Newman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, P.j.a.d.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shebell

The opinion of the court was delivered by SHEBELL, P.J.A.D.

This appeal is from a judgment of the Law Division in an action in lieu of prerogative writ pursuant to R. 4:69-1. Plaintiffs, Wells H. Keddie ("Keddie") and the Rutgers Council of American Association of University Professors Chapters ("AAUP"), contend that the defendant, Rutgers, The State University ("Rutgers"), denied them both their common law right of access to certain information, and their statutory rights as conferred by N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to 4, Right-to-Know Law, by refusing to provide information they requested.

Keddie, a citizen of this State and a professor of Labor Studies at Rutgers, is a former president of Rutgers AAUP. AAUP is an unincorporated association, which represents for purposes of collective negotiation certain faculty members and others employed by Rutgers.

Rutgers "is the instrumentality of the State for the purpose of operating the state university" of the State of New Jersey pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:65-1 to 73, the "Rutgers, the state university law." N.J.S.A. 18A:65-2. There are three major campuses of Rutgers, located in Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick. N.J.S.A. 18A:65-9 states:

This chapter, being deemed and hereby declared necessary for the welfare of the state and the people of New Jersey to provide for the development of public higher education in the state and thereby to increase the efficiency of the public school system of the state, shall be liberally construed to effectuate the purposes and intent thereof.

[emphasis added.]

Plaintiffs requested "public records" from Rutgers, by letter from Keddie to Rutgers' President, Francis H. Lawrence on September 23, 1992. Keddie requested access to the following documents concerning the expenditure of university monies for legal representation and the nature of that representation, in matters related to labor relations, civil rights claims, and all other employment areas:

1. Bills for legal services (or "attorneys' fees statements);

2. IRS forms 1099 issued to law firms (these have not been pursued any further based upon defendant's assertion that these forms do not exist);

3. Accounting, audits, and other financial analyses of funds expended to pay legal bills, together with attorneys' fees statements, ("legal expense information");

4. Submissions by Rutgers to courts, agencies, arbitrators, and other forums and opinions, orders, recommendations and awards issued from such forums; and

5. The identity of any other documents that may contain the information requested.

Keddie's letter, asserting that such documents were public records, maintained:

disclosure is in the best tradition of the public interest, so that the citizens of the State of New Jersey may learn exactly how Rutgers treats and regards its employees. There is no countervailing rule of confidentiality, nor is there any legitimate interest in secrecy.

President Lawrence acknowledged receipt of Keddie's letter, and informed him that the matter had been referred to Rutgers' legal counsel.

Thereafter, University Counsel denied the entire request. By letter dated October 16, 1992, University Counsel asserted that the documents requested were either (a) available otherwise without Rutgers having to forward them; (b) public records but not required to be disclosed; or (c) privileged information which was not otherwise required to be disclosed.

On November 30, 1992, plaintiffs filed their complaint seeking access to public records held by Rutgers, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-2, and the common law. Rutgers filed an answer on February 2, 1993, denying that it was subject to the Right-to-Know Law or common law disclosure of public records. On April 14, 1993, the parties submitted a joint pretrial memorandum that stipulated the facts and set forth their respective legal and factual contentions. A pretrial order was entered April 16, 1993.

Extensive discovery followed. In response to an interrogatory, Rutgers provided plaintiffs with a list of all employment related docketed matters which it has been involved in for the last five years. Also in discovery, Rutgers' procedures for maintaining legal expenses information were revealed, as follows: At University Counsel's request, outside attorneys submit their bills for legal services monthly; the bills are reviewed by University Counsel, and forwarded to the controller's office for payment. The controller's accounts payable unit prepares a "bill head" setting forth the name and address of the law firm, due date, date and amount of the bill. The bill head, with the original outside attorney's bill attached, is forwarded then for approval by an university accountant. After review, it is returned to accounts payable and the bill data is entered into an "accounts payable" database, maintained on microfiche for at least 7 years. The paid legal bills are themselves archived and kept in a "D.E. room" for seven years. Additionally, University Counsel maintains copies of the bills for two years. The university accountant, also, prepares a bi-annual summary of legal expenses for University Counsel. This contains the dollar amounts paid to particular law firms for legal expenses and brief descriptions of the type of payment.

After conducting discovery, the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs in their motion sought access to documents related to the expenditure of university funds for legal representation in matters related to labor relations, civil rights claims, and other employment related areas, specifically to include, access to bill heads, attorney bills, data collected about attorneys' fees for labor and employment matters, and compilations of attorneys fees paid under authority of University Counsel. Plaintiff also ...

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