A Secaucus-based developer seeking to build an outlet mall in Frankford, Sussex County, has lost a state Supreme Court case seeking access to the records of a Rutgers University environmental law clinic.
Sussex Commons Associates LLC had sued for access to communications between the Rutgers Environmental Litigation Clinic and opponents of its proposed outlet mall.
Sussex previously sued Chelsea Property Group, another developer, alleging the company had interfered in its efforts to find tenants for the outlet mall. The law clinic represented groups opposed to the mall. Sussex was seeking copies of communications between the groups and Chelsea.
Sussex had lost the case in trial, but successfully appealed to the Appellate Division. However, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote a decision reversing the appellate decision.
Rabner wrote that the Open Public Records Act doesn’t apply to the clinic.
“OPRA seeks to promote the public interest by granting citizens access to documents that record the workings of government in some way. Because clinical legal programs do not perform any government functions, but instead teach law students how to practice law and represent clients, public access to documents related to clinic cases would not further the purposes of OPRA,” Rabner wrote in the decision.
Sussex Commons Associates managing partner Howard Buerkle said the company pursued the case because it wanted to know why public money was being spent to block the development.
“It had nothing to do with the environment,” Buerkle said. “It had everything to do with the use of public funds to thwart development.”
Buerkle said the development is still working its way through the approval process.
“We were trying to figure out why they’d take the case,” Buerkle said of Rutgers. “No students were involved, it cost the state a great deal of money and as a taxpayer, I had a problem with that.”
The decision was hailed by New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, who said the decision would block “strategic litigation against public participation.”
“This case is a real victory for the environment, especially for groups and citizens who are involved in litigation,” Tittel said in a statement. “Had the Appellate Division ruling stood, it would have severely limited the rights of environmental advocates and others to sue or be represented by law clinics.”
Company attorney Kevin D. Kelly could not be reached for comment.