Court ruling bolsters public records act Citizens entitled to attorney's fees

Court ruling bolsters public records act
Citizens entitled to attorney's fees


TRENTON — A Somerset County woman who hired a lawyer in order to access government records under the Open Public Records Act is entitled to an award of "reasonable attorney's fees," a state appellate court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling means that "if the agency releases the record because the complaint was filed, then the attorney is going to get paid for his or her time," said Richard Gutman, lawyer for Cynthia Teeters of Franklin Township.

"This empowers the citizens to take on the government," said John Paff, an advocate for open government records from Franklin.

"Once taxpayers see that records custodians (are) starting to cost them tax dollars, they will say, "Why don't you simply obey the letter and the spirit of the Open Public Records Act, so we don't have to pay this?' " Paff said.

Teeters, president of the Web-based Eastern European Adoption Coalition, filed two complaints with the state Government Records Council in 2002. She was seeking the results of an investigation into the licensing of an adoption agency started by a man who ran adult Web sites.

In 2002, the state Division of Youth and Family Services shut down that Somerset County-based agency, A Child's Hope. Teeters finally settled her case with the state and was given access to the agency's file after hiring Gutman, a Montclair lawyer. Tuesday's reversal qualifies Teeters as a "prevailing party," eligible for attorney's fees.

"We are mindful of the strong public policy of this state favoring settlements. . . . A result that places a claimant in a distinctively worse position economically if she settles than she would be by carrying the matter to a successful litigation conclusion disserves that policy," says the opinion, written by Appellate Judge Howard Kestin.

Gutman could not say how much money in fees he is seeking. "I haven't added up my time. . . . I've spent a lot of time on this case," he said.

Gutman said the ruling makes it easier for "nonaffluent individuals" to obtain attorneys to enforce their rights. He said lawyers would "have to sort of be crazy" to take such a case if they knew they would spend time and not get paid.

The Department of Children and Families, which includes DYFS, is reviewing the decision, said department spokesman Andy Williams. "In the near future, we will decide on what the appropriate next step might be," Williams said.

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