Topic: Labor and Employment
Many New Jerseyans who are public employees, such as school teachers, may have heard the term “Rice Notice.” A Rice Notice is a notification from a public body that it is going to discuss an individual’s employment in an upcoming meeting.
New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act (“OPMA”), known as the Sunshine Law, is found at N.J.S.A. 10:4-7, and provides that, generally, meetings of public bodies should be open to the public. The purpose of the Sunshine Law is to avoid secrecy in governance, and to give citizens advance notice of, and the right to attend, meetings of public bodies at which topics of interest to them are going to be addressed. There are some exceptions to this requirement, and an important exception is that discussion of personnel matters affecting specific individuals should be held in closed session. This exception allows the individuals being discussed to avoid having their employment and, often, their flaws, discussed in public.
However, having an individual’s employment discussed in closed session means that the individual cannot attend and be privy to the discussion and deliberations regarding their employment. Faced with these alternatives, many people would prefer to have their “dirty laundry” aired in public, so that they can know what was said, rather than learning only the final outcome of the discussion.
This is where the Rice Notice comes into play. A public body in New Jersey – such as a Board of Education or a municipality — which is going to discuss the employment of one or more specific individuals must notify those individuals at least forty-eight (48) hours in advance of the meeting. This notice must include the time and place of the meeting and that the individual’s employment will be discussed. It must also inform the individuals affected that they have the right to request that the discussion be held in open session, and how to request this.
In a recent case, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey reviewed and clarified the requirements of the Sunshine Law. Kean Fed’n of Teachers v. Morell, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 16 (App.Div. Feb. 8, 2017). There, the Board of Trustees of Kean University did not notify faculty members in advance that it was going to decide whether to reappoint them at an upcoming meeting. The Board did not conduct any actual deliberations regarding specific faculty members. Those deliberations were undertaken by a subcommittee. That subcommittee, the Academic Policy and Programs Committee, then reported to the full Board, with its recommendations regarding reappointment. The University contended that, “there were no Rice Notices needed in this particular instance, because there was no intention on the part of the Board to discuss personnel which could implicate privacy interests in closed session.” Id., at *27 (emphasis in original). In other words, the Board intended to “rubber stamp” the recommendations of the subcommittee. The Appellate Division found that, “It is clear to us that the Board uses this approach to avoid sending a Rice notice.” Id., at *31. The Court stated that, “a public body act(ing) on a personnel matter without prior discussion of any kind,” with only a “silent unexplained vote,” is “the antithesis of what the Legislature intended when it adopted the OPMA.” Id., at *30.
The Court made clear the requirements of the Sunshine Law:
We now hold that a public body is required to send out a Rice notice any time it has placed on its agenda any matters “involving the employment, appointment, termination of employment, terms and conditions of employment, evaluation of the performance of, promotion, or disciplining of any specific prospective public officer or employee or current public officer or employee employed or appointed by the public body[.]” N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b)(8). This approach will provide all of the affected employees with the opportunity to: (1) decide whether they desire a public discussion, and (2) prepare and present an appropriate request in writing. Rice, supra, 155 N.J. Super. at 73, 382 A.2d 386.
Id., at *36
This decision makes clear the purpose of the Sunshine Law, and that it must be construed liberally, to accomplish its goal. Id., at *13. It provides a ray of sunshine and a breath of fresh air for public employees and all citizens who want to participate in or observe the work of public bodies.