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M.G v. Eastern Camden County Regional School District Board of Education

December 19, 2012

M.G., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
EASTERN CAMDEN COUNTY REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION RECORDS CUSTODIAN, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-3782-11.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted: December 5, 2012

Before Judges Axelrad, Nugent and Haas.

Plaintiff M.G., a student, appeals from the dismissal of his claim that defendant, Eastern Camden County Regional School District Board of Education (Board), violated the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13. While a prevailing party fee dispute was pending remand from the Third Circuit, M.G. sought school records of attorney bills and other documents related to his federal claim against the school. M.G. challenges the findings by the Law Division judge that the documents provided by the Board were adequate and responsive to his requests, and other requested documents were protected by the attorney-client privilege or otherwise not subject to OPRA. We affirm.

I.

M.G. filed a complaint against the Board with the New Jersey Department of Education, which was settled in 2008. N.G. & K.G. ex. rel. M.G. v. E. Camden Cnty. Reg'l Bd. of Educ., OAL 82-08. He then filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey seeking counsel fees as the prevailing party under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 790 to 794f. M.G. v. E. Reg'l High Sch. Dist., No. 08-4019, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98631 (D.N.J. Oct. 21, 2009). On October 21, 2009, Judge Robert B. Kugler denied M.G. summary judgment, awarded no fees to his attorney, Jamie Epstein, characterizing the application as "sublimely absurd[,]" and because the claim was only for attorney's fees, dismissed the case. Id. at *36. M.G. appealed. On July 14, 2010, the Third Circuit "largely agree[d]" with Judge Kugler's assessment of the fee petition, but held he "erred by failing to hold a hearing to determine the reasonableness of the [attorney's] hourly rate[,]" and remanded for further proceedings. M.G. v. E. Reg'l High Sch. Dist., 386 Fed. Appx. 186 (3d Cir. 2010). Remand proceedings commenced on or about June 3, 2011.*fn1

M.G. submitted two OPRA requests to the Board -- OPRA1 submitted on June 25 and OPRA2 submitted on June 30, 2011. Based on the Board's responses on June 29 and July 22, 2011, M.G. filed the verified complaint in this action on July 28, 2011, alleging various OPRA violations, requesting the court compel production of the documents, and requesting attorney's fees. The Board filed an answer.

M.G. filed a motion for summary judgment, which the Board opposed. On the return date, Judge Francis J. Orlando, Jr., directed the Board to provide the OPRA2 documents for his in camera review in accordance with Hartz Mountain Industries v. New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, 369 N.J. Super. 175, 183 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 182 N.J. 147 (2004).*fn2 Following additional oral argument on November 4, 2011, the judge denied M.G.'s motion for summary judgment and, finding no violations by the Board, dismissed the complaint with prejudice by order dated November 4, 2011. This appeal ensued.

II.

In preparation for the federal hearing on remand, four OPRA requests were made to the Board: June 12, 2010*fn3 (OPRA0) (not a subject of this appeal); June 25, 2011 (OPRA1); June 30, 2011 (OPRA2); and October 14, 2011 (not a subject of this appeal and not included in the record).

OPRA1 states:

DOCUMENTS REQUESTED SINCE LAST OPRA REQUEST (WHICH IS ATTACHED)

1. ALL ATTY BILLS SINCE 12/16/09 (LAST BILL PROVIDED)

2. ALL VOUCHERS SINCE 12/16/09

3. ALL INVOICES SINCE 12/16/09

4. ALL PURCHASE ORDERS SINCE 12/16/09

5. ALL LEGAL SERVICES CONTRACTS SINCE

12/16/09 OPRA0 referenced in OPRA1 states:

ALL BILLS, VOUCHERS, CONTRACTS, INVOICES, ETC., WHETHER IN ELECTRONIC OR PAPER MEDIA, WHETHER RECEIVED OR SENT, FROM 9/1/07 TO PRESENT, FOR LEGAL REPRESENTATION ON BEHALF OF EASTERN H.S. AGAINST MY CLIENTS . .

I ALSO REQUEST ALL COPIES OF THE BOARD'S CONTRACT WITH THE BOARD'S ATTORNEY AND/OR LAW FIRM SINCE 9/1/07.

I ALSO REQUEST ALL COMMUNICATIONS BETWEEN THE BOARD AND ITS INSURANCE CARRIER FROM 9/1/07 TO ...


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