A New Jersey state appeals court ruled yesterday that a New York Times reporter does not have to reveal the identity of three sources who told him that Donald Trump's true worth lies in the millions of dollars, rather than in the billions as the mogul maintains.

Trump sued Timothy L. O'Brien for $5 billion in Superior Court in Camden, arguing that O'Brien hurt his "brand and reputation" by labeling him a mere millionaire in

TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald

.

In 2006, Superior Court Judge Irvin Snyder ruled that O'Brien's book fell into the realm of entertainment, so O'Brien could not invoke the privilege of protecting his sources.

O'Brien appealed, and Snyder stayed his order until the Appellate Division could decide.

A three-judge panel of the Appellate Division noted in its ruling that the book was written in a "breezy, irreverent style" but disagreed with Snyder's assessment.

"Without doubt, details of the life of Trump, whether entertainingly reported or not, constitute matters of public interest and thus 'news' protected by the Shield Law," the judges wrote.

O'Brien reported that Trump's net worth was from $150 million to $250 million. Trump argued that that assertion undermined the "perception of Trump as a businessman of extraordinary means and ability (which he is)."

O'Brien said he could not reveal the identity of his sources, who had "direct knowledge of Donald's finances," because they feared retribution from Trump.

O'Brien also reported that Trump's wealth resided in the millions in a 2004 series in the Times, and the newspaper published excerpts of O'Brien's book. Trump sued O'Brien and his publisher, but not the Times.

Nearly 20 entities, including news agencies, book publishers and press-freedom advocacy groups, filed briefs with the court in support of O'Brien.

Trump's attorney, William Tambussi of Westmont, said yesterday's ruling cleared the way for a trial, which would be in Camden.

"The ruling is not surprising, given New Jersey's long history of providing broad protection to all reporters, even those with dubious factual support for outlandish contentions," Tambussi said.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.