(CN) - Raritan, N.J., owes Gannett Co. $542,000 in legal fees, a special master appointed to write the final chapter of a long-running public records lawsuit said.
Gannett sued the municipality in 2009 after its New Jersey-based newspapers sought county and municipal payroll records in an electronic, non-PDF format.
Gannett owns seven newspapers in the state, the largest of which is the Asbury Park Press.
Its other Garden State holdings are the Bridgewater Courier-News, the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, East Brunswick Home News Tribune, Morristown Daily Record, the Vineland Daily Journal, and the Toms River Ocean County Observer.
Gannett won the case in August 2012, when Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone of Somerset County, N.J. ruled the newspapers are entitled to public records in readily analyzable electronic formats, as opposed to PDF formats or paper printouts.
Some PDF files are searchable electronically; some are not.
In April 2012, Ciccone appointed Thomas Quinn of Florham Park firm Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker to determine how much Gannett should get in legal fees.
The case is considered significant, as it is the first major public-access litigation to conclude since the state revised its Open Public Records Law in 2001.
The new law, which took effect in 2002, allows plaintiffs to seek attorney's fees. Before the revision, they were entitled only to a $500 award.
"While perhaps the Legislature did not envision litigation such as this and the amount of legal fees that the [special master] recommends, the issue in this case is one of public importance and Gannett is the prevailing party," Quinn wrote in the recommendation he submitted to the court.
"It has furthered OPRA's goals of access to the government and its information," he said.
Quinn declined to comment, citing the state's Rules of Professional Conduct.
According to a lengthy report on the Gannett-owned MyCentralJersey.com, the borough originally claimed that it did not maintain the records in electronic format, which Ciccone found to be untrue.
The borough and other municipalities that replied to the OPRA requests also claimed that a third-party payroll provider could convert the data into an Excel spreadsheet, but only at a cost. In the case of the Raritan request, the fee was quoted as $1,100, the website said.
Gannett said that cost was exorbitant -- and would be especially so if the records had been requested by a member of the public as opposed to national media organizations.
Gannett initially sought $495,491 in attorney's fees, but its request escalated as the borough continued to file motion after motion. MyCentralJersey.com said that at the time of the initial request Gannett had spent approximately $561,000 on the case. Thanks to having to respond to the additional motions, Gannett claims its total legal expenditures on the case have reached $704,435.
In making his recommendation, Quinn rejected the borough's contention that Gannett's requested fees were excessive; however, he did reject the media company's request for a 50 percent "enhancement," a stipulation typically reserved for attorneys who work on a contingency basis.
Raritan's population is about 7,600, which makes the legal bill about $71.31 per resident.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.