Spouse of town clerk who attempted to 'unmask' anonymous OPRAmachine user loses legal case

Spouse of town clerk who attempted to 'unmask' anonymous OPRAmachine user loses legal case
Photo by Mohammad Hoseini Rad / Unsplash

RIDGEFIELD - A judge has thrown out a former Ridgefield borough employee's lawsuit that previously sought to involve OPRAmachine for discovery purposes in its entirety without a trial.

The 2019 lawsuit made claims against the borough under the state's Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), common-law retaliation and violation of the New Jersey Exempt Fireman's Statute in connection with the borough's failure to hire former Ridgefield IT Director Joseph Silvestri's wife, who is also the town clerk of Ridgefield, for a position as borough administrator. The lawsuit also made various claims against borough elected officials and administration in connection with the elimination of the IT director position in favor of an outside vendor.

In a written opinion posted to the New Jersey Judiciary website issued January 3rd, 2023, state Superior Court Judge Robert Wilson dismissed all of the claims made in Silvestri's 2019 complaint against the Borough in their entirety in response to a motion for summary judgment.

Subpoena for OPRAmachine user dropped

During the pendency of the case in late 2021, the plaintiff's attorney, Thomas Flinn attempted to serve OPRAmachine with a subpoena compelling us to provide data, including the name, IP address, email address and other details regarding the identity of a pseudonymous user of the platform who requested records from the Borough of Ridgefield using OPRAmachine during the pendency of the lawsuit. As the borough clerk of Ridgefield, Silvestri's wife, Linda Silvestri is the OPRA custodian of records responsible for responding to the requests at issue in the case.

The Borough of Ridgefield's attorney first filed a motion to quash the subpoena to OPRAmachine, which was initially denied by Judge Wilson. Subsequently, OPRAmachine appeared in the case and received pro bono legal assistance to contest the subpoena with the aid of the ACLU-NJ and filed a new motion to quash the subpoena, incorporating additional arguments as to why the anonymous OPRAmachine user's identity should not be discoverable in the civil litigation against the Borough.

After OPRAmachine's motion was filed, the subpoena seeking disclosure of the OPRAmachine user's data in a deposition was dropped, so the Court never had to reach a decision on the merits of our arguments following the withdrawal of the subpoena and second motion to quash.

A vindication for anonymous online speech

"At OPRAmachine, we strongly believe in the right to anonymous online speech and will zealously defend the rights of our users to request public records through the platform without being subjected to undue fishing expeditions conducted by personal injury attorneys seeking to 'unmask' anonymous OPRA requestors and drag them into legal proceedings for no reason other than their interest in public records," said Gavin Rozzi, founder and owner of the OPRAmachine platform.

"The outcome of the subpoena at issue in this case is a vindication of those principles," Rozzi added. "We are very grateful for the expert guidance provided by our legal counsel, CJ Griffin, Director of the Justice Stein Public Interest Center at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, P.C. and Jeanne LoCicero of the ACLU-NJ, who skillfully defended our position and the civil rights of our anonymous user. Their assistance was invaluable."

"They both have been very valuable partners in the fight to ensure that we can continue to protect the civil rights of our users and operate our platform without the fear of legal demands that are clearly at odds with New Jersey's public policy in favor of anonymous OPRA requests and high threshold for unmasking anonymous speakers on the internet," said Rozzi. "We encourage our users to consider supporting the ACLU of New Jersey Foundation by making a donation so that this work can continue," said Rozzi, who also acknowledged Amol Sinha, the executive director of the ACLU-NJ.

Anonymous users cautioned to protect their privacy

OPRAmachine still cautions users who choose to make use of the platform's anonymous request features to err on the side of caution practice good cyber hygiene and take steps to protect their privacy in case their activity on the platform creates unwanted attention, as this outcome was contigent on the specific legal and factual issues of this individual case. Legitimate anonymous users who become caught up in such a demand will be notified in accordance with OPRAmachine's terms of service, and are also encouraged to obtain their own legal counsel to protect their rights in these instances, should they feel it is warranted.

While OPRAmachine takes some steps to limit the data collected in anticipation of issues like this arising, in certain circumstances user activity on the site could indeed become discoverable and users should be mindful of this. Those users who need protect their identity could take steps such as making use of anonymous / pseudonymous email account as well as a VPN, among other precautions to limit the scope of personal identifiers that may become discoverable in litigation involving their use of OPRAmachine.

Users are also adivsed to not abuse these anonymous features for impersonation or identity theft, as these are not permitted uses of the platform under the OPRAmachine terms of service and may result in repercussions approrpriate to remedy the situation, as the case may be.