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OPRA NJ Open Public Records Act

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Old 05-09-2017, 12:52 AM
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Judge: Public not allowed to know how much public money was paid to settle South Jers

On May 8, 2017, United States District Court Judge Noel L. Hillman ruled that a Gloucester County school district must keep the amount of its financial settlement with a disabled student confidential partially because the student and his or her parents "may suffer embarrassment from public disclosure of their settlement." Hillman also wrote that disclosure of the settlement amount could place the student and his or her parents "at an unfair disadvantage in the continuation of" their litigation against another Gloucester County school district which is also a defendant in the lawsuit.

In his six-page opinion, Hillman noted that a 9 year-old, "indisputably disabled" student, identified only by the initials A.S., and the student's parents settled their Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) lawsuit against the Harrison Township School District but are still actively pursuing their suit against the East Greenwich School District.

East Greenwich opposed A.S.'s motion to seal the settlement amount arguing that "the financial terms of the settlement must be disclosed because Defendant Harrison Township is a public entity." Hillman wrote that East Greenwich "oversimplifies" the issue and that although "there is at least some general public interest in how much any public school board pays to settle a lawsuit such as this . . . [t]here is no evidence that any member of the public from Harrison Township has any interest in how much money the Township paid to these particular Plaintiffs."

Hillman also wrote that he "cannot overlook the obvious fact that knowing [the settlement amount] would be helpful to Greenwich in its continued litigation against Plaintiffs." Since East Greenwich's interests are "purely private," Hillman wrote that those interests "carr[y] little weight in the balancing of the sealing factors."

Ultimately, Hillman ruled that the settlement agreement is public as long as the dollar figures are blacked out. The dollar amounts to be obscured include the fees that A.S.'s lawyer is to receive from Harrison or its insurer.

It is possible that after the A.S.'s litigation against East Greenwich is resolved, the alleged embarrassment that A.S. and his or her parents would suffer will no longer be enough to justify the continued sealing of the settlement amount.

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