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Paff v. New Jersey Dep't of Labor

August 2, 2005

JOHN T. PAFF, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF LABOR, BOARD OF REVIEW, RESPONDENT.



On appeal from a Final Decision of the Government Records Council.

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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued on April 19, 2005

Before Judges Skillman, Grall and Gilroy.

Pursuant to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, John T. Paff requested documents related to a specific certificate of debt issued by the Department of Labor (DOL), Division of Unemployment Compensation and Temporary Disability Financing. He appeals from a final decision of the Government Records Council (GRC) dismissing his appeal from the DOL's denial of access. N.J.S.A. 47:1A-7e.

The GRC based its decision on the following: N.J.S.A. 47:1A-9, which precludes access to documents and information made confidential by statute; N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g), which makes confidential "records, reports and other information obtained from employers and employees" in the administration of the Unemployment Compensation Law (UCL) and the Temporary Disability Benefits Law (TDBL); and a certification from the custodian of the records, who represented that the file included only documents protected by N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g). The GRC determined: "OPRA does not have jurisdiction to supersede the [UCL] and grant access to the records that the [c]ustodian certifies are protected by [that] law."

Because the GRC took too broad a view of the exemption provided by N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g) and too narrow a view of its jurisdiction and authority, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

The relevant facts are undisputed. On June 21, 2003, Paff filed an OPRA request for "[a]ny documents related to the . . . 'Certificate of Debt': Docket: Mer-DJ-492454-97; DOL Docket ND-013920-97 . . . ." On June 25, 2003, the custodian of the DOL's records responded:

I regret I cannot provide you with the documentation . . . . Specifically, the latter is maintained within the wage reporting files maintained by the Division of Employer Accounts. As such, the contents thereof are deemed to be confidential pursuant to the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation Law; in particular N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g). That statute superseded [sic] the provisions of OPRA thereby constraining me to deny your request.*fn1

A warrant of satisfaction of that certificate of debt was filed with the clerk of the court on June 25, 2003.

On June 29, 2003, Paff inquired about the DOL's interpretation of N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g). He asked whether the statute precluded access to "every record in the file." On July 7, 2003, the custodian responded by directing Paff to obtain a copy of the judgment from the court and reasserting statutory protection for related documents.

On July 17, 2003, as authorized by N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, Paff filed an appeal with the GRC challenging the custodian's decision. While that appeal was pending, Paff submitted a second request to the DOL. In response, the custodian provided a redacted copy of the certificate and the warrant of satisfaction, simply reasserting that "[a]ny remaining documents are part of a tax file and are confidential pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:21-11(g)."

Paff asked the GRC to compel the custodian to "identify and describe the documents contended to be confidential so that [he would have] a basis upon which [to] mount his challenge to the denial." ...


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