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Williamson v. Treasurer of the State of New Jersey

April 16, 2002

THOMAS D. WILLIAMSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
TREASURER OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, MER-L-1398-01.

Before Judges Petrella, Steinberg and Alley.

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted March 18, 2002

This appeal presents the issue of whether the information the State Treasurer receives from the Clerk of the Superior Court regarding funds deposited with the court, but unclaimed, and thereafter presumed abandoned and turned over to the State Treasurer, is required to be made available to the public either under the Right to Know Law, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -4 *fn1 or the common law.*fn2 Plaintiff Thomas D. Williamson, an attorney, is involved in locating potential claimants to unclaimed property. He sought information from the State Treasurer relating to unclaimed property formerly held for ten years by the Clerk of the Superior Court as unclaimed monies deposited in connection with various lawsuits and then turned over to the State for safekeeping. Particularly, he sought information regarding the balances in each of the transferred account items and their source.

Prior to 1999, rather than personally seeking to inspect the records of owners of property held by the State, transferred from the court, Williamson would call the Office of the Administrator of Unclaimed Property (OAUP) in the State Department of the Treasury and request information over the telephone relating to accounts held by the OAUP that had been transferred to it by the Clerk of the Superior Court under court orders. In 1999, a Deputy Attorney General (DAG) told Williamson that he would no longer be entitled to receive free information on demand over the telephone from the OAUP and that the information was confidential and would not be disclosed in any form. This presumably would not include information available from the Treasury Department's website database which is generally accessed by telephone and modem or other access medium through the Internet.*fn3 The DAG told Williamson in a follow-up letter, dated January 7, 2000, that the information he sought pertaining to funds held for owners who did not make claims was confidential and would not be disclosed.

Williamson sought review of this determination. His first appeal was dismissed without prejudice based on a ruling that the DAG's letter was not a final agency determination. Williamson v. Treasurer of the State of New Jersey, A-3291-99-T2. Certification was denied. 165 N.J. 678 (2000).

Williamson thereupon filed an action in lieu of a prerogative writ on February 24, 2001, seeking access to information deemed abandoned and transferred by the Clerk of the Superior Court to the State Treasurer.*fn4 Williamson moved for summary judgment and the Treasurer cross-moved to dismiss the complaint.

The Law Division Judge denied Williamson's motion for summary judgment and granted the Treasurer's motion to dismiss. The Law Division Judge also said that Williamson had no right to the information over the telephone and because the information sought was considered confidential in nature, he was also not entitled to it. Williamson appeals and argues that the information he seeks from the OAUP is not confidential and therefore constitutes public records subject to disclosure under the Right to Know Law.

The OAUP is an office in the State Department of the Treasury charged with the responsibility of maintaining records of abandoned property and handling claims for the return or payment of funds when persons become aware the funds are held by the State. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-1 to -109 (Uniform Unclaimed Property Act (UUPA)). The information OAUP maintains is now kept in electronic format on computers, although it used to be kept in paper format and there still may be hardcover backup. Presumably, the source of the information now in computer format has been retained and would be available, although the record is not clear on this point. The OAUP maintains a list of owners and last known addresses of people with potential claims to unclaimed property of its customers on a searchable Internet database (see footnote 3, supra) which may be viewed by anyone, but without listing the amount held or the source of the funds, and responds to written requests made on its prescribed claim forms (see N.J.S.A. 46:30B-77), with proof of identity or entitlement, from persons who can establish a claim of ownership to the property. The State's database presumably includes funds transferred from the Clerk of the Superior Court. The Internet searchable database purports to comply with the Right to Know Law as to funds received from the Clerk of the Superior Court, as well as other services, by listing only names and addresses, but not with the amount of funds held for each person listed or the source of those funds.

I.

Our holding in this appeal is limited to the issue Williamson raises, his right to information about funds transferred from the Clerk of the Superior Court to the OAUP.*fn5

We can take judicial notice of the fact that pleadings and other documents on file in the Superior Court are generally public records and that the orders in litigated matters regarding depositing funds with the Court Clerk, generally to abide the outcome of litigation, as well as orders transferring deposited funds deemed abandoned after ten years, are public records. See N.J.R.E. 201(b)(4) and (c). Likewise, we can take judicial notice of procedures in the Superior Court Clerk's office regarding posting notice of unclaimed funds.

All holders of unclaimed funds, or property "of the value of $25.00 or more" have an obligation to make annual reports to the OAUP concerning the nature of the abandoned property. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-47. A holder is any person, wherever organized or domiciled, who possesses the property of another, a trustee, or one indebted to another on an obligation. N.J.S.A. 46:30B-6(g). The Clerk of the Superior Court is a holder of such funds when depositors of funds with the Clerk (see e.g., R. 4:57-1) or claimants to funds fail or neglect to apply ...


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