A New Jersey town is suing an elderly woman for filing too many public records requests and speaking out at city meetings, saying the octogenarian is bullying town officials.
Irvington Township, in a lawsuit filed in New Jersey state court, says 82-year-old Elouise McDaniel has harassed and annoyed town employees by filing frequent "frivolous" ethics complaints and public records requests. Specifically, the township accuses McDaniel of malicious abuse of process, malicious prosecution, defamation, and harassment.
Among Irvington Township's grievances is the fact that McDaniel filed more than 75 public records requests for township information over a three-year period through New Jersey's Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Responding to McDaniel's "voluminous OPRA requests has been unduly burdensome, time consuming and expensive," Irvington says in the lawsuit.
McDaniel, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of the town in 2018, told NJ.com that she thought the suit was political.
"This has been going on for a long time and I'm just tired at this point," she said. "I'm tired, this is ridiculous. I want to live out my final years … in peace."
All 50 states have laws enshrining the right to access government records, and while requests can be denied for being overbroad or too burdensome to complete, there is nothing illegal or actionable about sending too many requests. (I would have already been sued into poverty if it were so.)
Over the past several years, though, city and state agencies have started filing what are known as "reverse FOIA" lawsuits against public records requesters, asking a court to block disclosure and forcing the requester to defend their right to access public records. (In fact, a Washington police department filed a reverse FOIA suit against me two years ago.)
Irvington's lawsuit goes much further, veering into what McDaniel and First Amendment experts say is outright retaliation. Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), speaking in his personal capacity, says the unusual suit falls into "man-bites-dog territory."
Among the lawsuit's demands is that McDaniel turn over communications and documents related to her claims of corruption, which presumably includes records the town already gave her.
"Here's a city requesting public records from a citizen, whining that an elderly resident exercised her right to request records, and trying to get a court to order a citizen to stop criticizing her town," he says. "It's a shame that New Jersey doesn't have an anti-SLAPP [Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation] statute. This is the most ill-considered SLAPP I've seen since I watched the Oscars."
The suit, if successful, could also set a terrible state precedent that would allow agencies to set arbitrary thresholds limiting how many requests citizens could file.
Irvington also says McDaniel has "bullied and annoyed Township administration on repeated occasions, and has otherwise continued to disrupt Township operations."
As evidence, the lawsuit points to an instance in 2017 when McDaniel approached a city council member, pointed her finger, and said, "I'm going to get you and you're going to pay." As a result, the suit says, McDaniel was charged and pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace.
"If you're a government official—presumably an adult—complaining to a court that an elderly woman 'bullied' you, then you have chosen the wrong profession," Steinbaugh says.
Irvington also says McDaniel made numerous defamatory accusations against township officials of "theft, misconduct, cronyism, nepotism, and unethical and criminal behavior."
The irony, of course, is that no one outside of Irvington would have likely heard about McDaniel's claims of corruption if the town had not decided to sue her for being annoying.
Irvington Township declined to comment, citing the active litigation.
When local New York news outlet NBC4 reported on the story, the township sent the outlet two cease-and-desist letters accusing it of harassment.