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Spinks v. Township of Clinton

September 11, 2008

GRANT SPINKS, ROBERT KOVACS, AND MICHAEL EXLEY, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
THE TOWNSHIP OF CLINTON, STEPHEN CLANCY, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CHIEF OF POLICE OF THE TOWNSHIP OF CLINTON, DWIGHT RUNYON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE TOWNSHIP OF CLINTON, AND WAYNE WEISS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE TOWNSHIP OF CLINTON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hunterdon County, Docket No. L-0342-03.

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

RECORD IMPOUNDED

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued March 12, 2008

Before Judges Wefing, Parker and Lyons.

Defendant The Township of Clinton (the Township) seeks to bar the release of certain documents, primarily the records of the internal investigation of the Township police department, submitted to the trial court in connection with a summary judgment motion, arguing that disclosure is forbidden by law, and that, under common-law principles, the Township's interest in confidentiality outweighs the public's interest in accessing the records. Because we find that the trial court properly applied the law to the facts of the case, but did not effectuate the redaction of all of the personal information ordered to be withheld, we affirm in part and remand for further redaction of the record in accordance with the trial judge's order.

On March 27, 2006, Judge Peter A. Buchsbaum granted summary judgment to defendants, the Township and Stephen Clancy,*fn1 in plaintiffs' action against both defendants alleging violations of 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and the State Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49. Plaintiffs' challenge to that judgment is the subject of a companion case entitled Spinks v. Twp. of Clinton, No. A-4522-05T1.

During discovery, plaintiffs had moved to compel production of the Township's records of its police department's internal affairs investigation, and defendant cross-moved for a protective order. The motions were argued to Judge Buchsbaum on July 19, 2005, and he issued a written opinion on the same date. In a confidentiality order of July 26, 2005, the trial court denied plaintiffs' request for some documents and granted it as to others, subject to an in camera inspection. The in camera inspection hearing was conducted on August 8, 2005, during which the trial judge ordered that some documents be sealed and others be released after portions were redacted.

On March 15, 2006, twelve days before the return date of the summary judgment motion decision in the underlying action, defendant sent the trial court a letter asking that the oral argument and ruling on the pending summary judgment motion be conducted in closed court and placed under seal. Defendant reasoned that the need for confidentiality that was the basis of the July 26, 2005, order still existed -- that it was necessary to protect the anonymity of witnesses and to conceal the details of the internal affairs investigation.

By letter dated March 16, 2006, the trial court denied defendant's request, explaining that the sealing of records does not equate "to sealing of arguments and decisions." In a March 17, 2006, letter, the trial court stated its intention "to release all pleadings from seal and only retain under seal those supporting documents which themselves were sealed pursuant to [the July 26, 2005,] order of this Court."

On March 22, 2006, a day after defendant sent the trial court a letter objecting to its March 17 ruling, the court reaffirmed its ruling that the July 26, 2005, order did not require that the pleadings be sealed.

On April 6, 2006, defendant moved for an order to show cause seeking to protect certain enumerated documents. Plaintiffs opposed the application, noting among its arguments that the information defendant sought to protect had already been disclosed in newspaper articles and press releases. The motion was argued on April 28, 2006.

By order of May 8, 2006, the trial court directed that certain documents be unsealed. This included documents regarding the complaints that eventually led to the investigation, and documents concerning the general conduct and nature of this investigation, including the need for the investigation, the fact and methods of utilizing the global positioning system (GPS) unit in the vehicles of patrol officers and public announcement of the alleged results of the investigation, and "all circumstances already in the public domain." In addition, the trial ...


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