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New Jersey Supreme Court Forces County to Cough up Settlement Documents With Prisoner Raped By Jail Guard Who Snitched on Fellow Guards

by David M. Reutter

On March 7, 2022, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a settlement agreement resolving a disciplinary action against a guard at the Cumberland County Jail (CCJ) qualified as a government record, not a personnel record, and was thus available for public review under the state’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. § 47:1A-1 et seq.

The Court’s opinion was issued in a case brought by Libertarians for Transparent Government (LTG) over a denied OPRA request related to a former CCJ guard, Tyrone Ellis. In October 2017, CCJ prisoner Jennifer Cantoni sued the county and several guards, including Ellis, alleging among other things that they forced her to engage in non-consensual sex acts. [See: PLN, Aug. 2018, p.14.]

LTG obtained minutes from a public meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System on March 18, 2018, when Ellis’s application for special retirement was considered. The minutes revealed that on August 23, 2016, Ellis was charged in a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action (PNDA) with “improper fraternization with inmates and introduction of contraband” into CCJ. He admitted to inappropriate relationships with two female detainees as well as bringing bras, underwear, cigarettes, and a cellphone into CCJ.

The minutes showed the County sought to terminate Ellis, and when he submitted his resignation, the County warned it intended to continue to prosecute the disciplinary action. Ellis then agreed to cooperate in the investigation against four other guards. That resulted in a settlement agreement allowing Ellis to retire in good standing. After withdrawal of the PNDA, Ellis received a reduced pension of 20 years, rather than the 25 years and six months he actually worked as a guard.

LTG submitted an OPRA request on July 24, 2018, seeking the PNDA and the settlement agreement, along with Ellis’ “name, title, position, salary, payroll record, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor,” in accordance with N.J.S.A. § 47:1A-10. The County declined to produce the PNDA and the settlement agreement, claiming they were personnel records exempt from disclosure.

LTG then sued in state Superior Court to force disclosure of the records. That court ordered the County to provide a redacted version of the settlement agreement, holding it was a government record under OPRA. It also found the County “violated OPRA by misrepresenting the reason for Ellis’ separation” from employment by saying he was terminated. LTG was also granted fees for its attorney, C.J. Griffin of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden P.C. in Hackensack. The County appealed, and the Appellate Court reversed. The Supreme Court of New Jersey then granted review.

Reversing the Appellate Court, the high Court noted that § 10 of OPRA expressly states that a state worker’s “date of separation” from employment “and the reasons therefor … shall be government record.” As such, “a plain reading of the text calls for disclosure of a settlement agreement that contains such information once the document has been redacted.”

The Court noted that while some requesters may be satisfied with a written summary in response to an OPRA request, the OPRA entitles them to press for actual government records in many situations. Citing Kovalcik v. Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, 206 N.J. 581 (2011), the Court said that any personnel information falling under § 10’s exceptions should be redacted, “but that the redacted records themselves should be disclosed.” Therefore, the trial court’s order was reinstated. See: Libertarians for Transparent Gov’t v. Cumberland Cty.,250 N.J. 46 (2022).

As for Cantoni’s suit, the federal court for the District of New Jersey denied a motion to dismiss by Defendants on July 6, 2018, after which the parties reached a settlement agreement paying Cantoni $150,000, inclusive of fees for her attorney, Mark R. Natale of the Law Offices of Leo B. Dubler III in Mount Laurel. See: Cantoni v. Cumberland Cty., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 112269 (D.N.J.); and Cantoni v. Cumberland Cty., USDC (D.N.J.), Case No. 1:17-cv-07893. 

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Related legal cases

Libertarians for Transparent Gov’t v. Cumberland Cty.

Cantoni v. Cumberland Cty.

Cantoni v. Cumberland Cty.