The New Jersey Supreme Court has rejected an effort by Monmouth County to keep the details of a sexual harassment settlement secret.
The unanimous decision, released Jan. 25, affirms an appellate court ruling against Monmouth in a case that began with a lawsuit by a county employee.
In April 2005, a county engineer, Carol Melnick, sued the Monmouth freeholders and five past and present employees charging sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment.
The county agreed to settle with Melnick in the summer of 2007. The agreement was not filed with a court or affirmed in a judgment, and contained its own confidentiality provision. The opposing parties simply issued a one-sentence stipulation dismissing Melnick's suit on Aug. 6, 2007.By that time, open government activist John Paff and The Asbury Park Press were already trying to find out what was going on in the case and how much the county was paying. But Monmouth officials rejected requests under the state Open Public Records Act from both Paff and the newspaper.
A trial court upheld the county's position, noting the law contains an exception for sexual harassment complaints or grievances filed with an employer. But the appellate court overturned that decision, saying the exemption does not apply to court complaints.
"As the [appellate] panel explained, lawsuits are filed in a public forum and the public has a right of access to court documents filed in civil lawsuits," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in the Supreme Court ruling.
The High Court noted the appellate ruling applied only to Monmouth County's settlement agreement, not to details of Melnick's file such as medical or psychological records.
"The court made the right decision," said Paff, who heads the Libertarian Party's campaign for open government in New Jersey. "Government officials shouldn't be allowed to cover up possible wrongdoing by making lawsuit settlements confidential."
Before the Supreme Court, the county argued that the court's sweeping decision last year against a title company seeking a county database of land records also applied to sexual harassment.
In that case, Burnett v. County of Bergen, the high court allowed the county to impose large fees to redact the records to remove personal information before releasing the database, even though the same information remains public in records kept at county clerk's offices.
But that decision, while closely watched around the nation, had as much to do with preserving a commercial advantage for county clerks over private businesses as it had with either privacy or government transparency concerns.
Responding to the Monmouth County argument, the Supreme Court said releasing a database with 8 million pages of land title records could have "exposed an untold number of individuals to an increased risk of identity theft."
In contrast, Monmouth has no basis to raise a privacy issue, the court found. Melnick filed a public complaint, which would have been heard in open court if the county had not settled, the ruling said.
"A government entity cannot enter into a voluntary agreement at the end of a public lawsuit to keep a settlement confidential, and then claim a reasonable expectation of privacy in the amount of that settlement," the Supreme Court said.