The New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals must comply with the Open Public Records Act despite its status as a private, nonprofit group, a state appeals court ruled Friday in a published decision.
The appeals court upheld a trial judge’s ruling that the NJSPCA must comply with a request for records relating to the group’s takeover of an animal shelter in Middlesex County, New Jersey, and pay the requester’s legal fees and costs of $42,147 related to the inquiry. The panel rejected the NJSPCA’s argument that it can’t be held subject to OPRA because it receives no funds from the state budget, and said it could not impose a special service charge to a records requester.
The court’s ruling might not apply to the NJSPCA later in the year, when legislation taking away the group’s role as enforcers of animal cruelty laws takes effect. The Legislature revamped animal cruelty laws after an October report from the State Commission of Investigation heaped criticism on the NJSPCA’s management. But the ruling sheds light on obligations of quasi-public organizations under OPRA.
Plaintiff Collene Wronko sued the NJSPCA after getting no response to her 2014 OPRA request concerning its rescue of animals that were allegedly abused in a shelter in Helmetta. Superior Court Judge Travis Francis determined that the NJSPCA was subject to OPRA and ordered it to develop a mechanism for responding to records requests. The group’s response called for charging an hourly rate for collecting and compiling documents, citing its minimal staff and meager finances. But Francis, finding that Wronko’s request did not meet the statutory definition of an extraordinary expenditure of time and effort to accommodate the request, held that the shelter could not charge her a service fee. Read more…