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 FOIL-AO-13045

November 14, 2001

 

The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the information presented in your correspondence.

Dear

I have received your letter of October 15, which reached this office on October 22. You wrote that you "have experienced a brazen disregard" for the Freedom of Information Law in your efforts to obtain records from the Town of Southampton. Based on a review of the materials attached to your letter, it appears that requests directed to various Town officials were not answered, and that disclosure of numerous records has been delayed because the records were sent to the Town's consultant.

In this regard, first, since requests were made to several Town officials, I note that the regulations promulgated by the Committee on Open Government (21 NYCRR Part 1401) require that each agency designate one or more persons as "records access officer." The records access officer has the duty to coordinate an agency's response to requests for records, and requests should ordinarily be made to that person. If a request is made to a Town officer or employee other than the records access officer, I believe that the recipient of the request must either respond directly in a manner consistent with law or forward the request to the records access officer.

Second, in a related vein, the Freedom of Information Law provides direction concerning the time and manner in which agencies must respond to requests. Specifically, §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law states in part that:

"Each entity subject to the provisions of this article, within five business days of the receipt of a written request for a record reasonably described, shall make such record available to the person requesting it, deny such request in writing or furnish a written acknowledgement of the receipt of such request and a statement of the approximate date when such request will be granted or denied..."

If neither a response to a request nor an acknowledgement of the receipt of a request is given within five business days, or if an agency delays responding for an unreasonable time after it acknowledges that a request has been received, a request may, in my opinion, be considered to have been constructively denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. In such a circumstance, I believe that the denial may be appealed in accordance with §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision states in relevant part that:

"...any person denied access to a record may within thirty days appeal in writing such denial to the head, chief executive, or governing body, who shall within ten business days of the receipt of such appeal fully explain in writing to the person requesting the record the reasons for further denial, or provide access to the record sought."

In addition, it has been held that when an appeal is made but a determination is not rendered within ten business days of the receipt of the appeal as required under §89(4)(a) of the Freedom of Information Law, the appellant has exhausted his or her administrative remedies and may initiate a challenge to a constructive denial of access under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Rules [Floyd v. McGuire, 87 AD 2d 388, appeal dismissed 57 NY 2d 774 (1982)].

Third, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to all agency records, and §86(4) defines the term "record" expansively to include:

"any information kept, held, filed, produced, reproduced by, with or for an agency or the state legislature, in any physical form whatsoever including, but not limited to, reports, statements, examinations, memoranda, opinions, folders, files, books, manuals, pamphlets, forms, papers, designs, drawings, maps, photos, letters, microfilms, computer tapes or discs, rules, regulations or codes."

The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, has construed the definition as broadly as its specific language suggests. The first such decision that dealt squarely with the scope of the term "record" involved documents pertaining to a lottery sponsored by a fire department. Although the agency contended that the documents did not pertain to the performance of its official duties, i.e., fighting fires, but rather to a "nongovernmental" activity, the Court rejected the claim of a "governmental versus nongovernmental dichotomy" [see Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY2d 575, 581 (1980)] and found that the documents constituted "records" subject to rights of access granted by the Law. Moreover, the Court determined that:

"The statutory definition of 'record' makes nothing turn on the purpose for which it relates. This conclusion accords with the spirit as well as the letter of the statute. For not only are the expanding boundaries of governmental activity increasingly difficult to draw, but in perception, if not in actuality, there is bound to be considerable crossover between governmental and nongovernmental activities, especially where both are carried on by the same person or persons" (id.).

In a decision involving records prepared by corporate boards furnished voluntarily to a state agency, the Court of Appeals reversed a finding that the documents were not "records," thereby rejecting a claim that the documents "were the private property of the intervenors, voluntarily put in the respondents' 'custody' for convenience under a promise of confidentiality" [Washington Post v. Insurance Department, 61 NY 2d 557, 564 (1984)]. Once again, the Court relied upon the definition of "record" and reiterated that the purpose for which a document was prepared or the function to which it relates are irrelevant. Moreover, the decision indicated that "When the plain language of the statute is precise and unambiguous, it is determinative" (id. at 565).

More recently, the Court of Appeals found that materials received by a corporation providing services for a branch of the State University that were kept on behalf of the University constituted "records" falling with the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law. I point out that the Court rejected "SUNY's contention that disclosure turns on whether the requested information is in the physical possession of the agency", for such a view "ignores the plain language of the FOIL definition of 'records' as information kept or held 'by, with or for an agency'" [see Encore College Bookstores, Inc. v. Auxiliary Services Corporation of the State University of New York at Farmingdale, 87 NY2d 410, 417 (1995)]. Therefore, if documents are kept or produced for an agency, as in the case of the records ordinarily maintained at town offices that have been sent to a consultant, or records that are typically filed with an agency are sent directly to the agency's consultant, they constitute agency records, even if they are not in the physical possession of the agency.

From my perspective, insofar as Town records are in the physical possession of the Town's consultant, in response to a request for any such records, I believe that the records access officer, in carrying out his or her duty to "coordinate" the Town's response to requests, must either direct the consultant to make the records available in a manner consistent with law, or acquire the records in order that they may be disclosed in accordance with law.

Next, as a general matter, the Freedom of Information Law is based upon a presumption of access. Stated differently, all records of an agency are available, except to the extent that records or portions thereof fall within one or more grounds for denial appearing in §87(2)(a) through (i) of the Law.

In my view, records submitted by an applicant, either to the Town or its agent, would, in the context of the information that you provided, ordinarily be available under the law, for none of the grounds for denial would appear to be pertinent or applicable.

I note that Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster [65 NY2d 131 (1985)] dealt with reports prepared by "outside consultants retained by agencies" (id. 133). In such cases, it was found by the Court of Appeals that the records prepared by consultants should be treated as if they were prepared by agency staff and should, therefore, be considered intra-agency materials that fall within the scope of §87(2)(g).

Although that provision potentially serves as a basis for a denial of access, due to its structure it often requires disclosure. Section 87(2)(g) permits an agency to withhold records that:

"are inter-agency or intra-agency materials which are not:

i. statistical or factual tabulations or data;

ii. instructions to staff that affect the public;

iii. final agency policy or determinations; or

iv. external audits, including but not limited to audits performed by the comptroller and the federal government..."

It is noted that the language quoted above contains what in effect is a double negative. While inter- agency or intra-agency materials may be withheld, portions of such materials consisting of statistical or factual information, instructions to staff that affect the public, final agency policy or determinations or external audits must be made available, unless a different ground for denial could appropriately be asserted. Concurrently, those portions of inter-agency or intra-agency materials that are reflective of opinion, advice, recommendation and the like could in my view be withheld.

In its discussion of the issue in Xerox, the Court of Appeals stated that:

"Opinions and recommendations prepared by agency personnel may be exempt from disclosure under FOIL as 'predecisional materials, prepared to assist an agency decision maker***in arriving at his decision' (McAulay v. Board of Educ., 61 AD 2d 1048, aff'd 48 NY 2d 659). Such material is exempt 'to protect the deliberative process of government by ensuring that persons in an advisory role would be able to express their opinions freely to agency decision makers (Matter of Sea Crest Const. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549).

"In connection with their deliberative process, agencies may at times require opinions and recommendations from outside consultants. It would make little sense to protect the deliberative process when such reports are prepared by agency employees yet deny this protection when reports are prepared for the same purpose by outside consultants retained by agencies. Accordingly, we hold that records may be considered 'intra-agency material' even though prepared by an outside consultant at the behest of an agency as part of the agency's deliberative process (see, Matter of Sea Crest Constr. Corp. v. Stubing, 82 AD 2d 546, 549, supra; Matter of 124 Ferry St. Realty Corp. v. Hennessy, 82 AD 2d 981, 983)" [Xerox Corporation v. Town of Webster, 65 NY 2d 131, 132-133 (1985)].

Based upon the foregoing, records prepared by a consultant for an agency may be withheld or must be disclosed based upon the same standards as in cases in which records are prepared by the staff of an agency. It is emphasized that the Court in Xerox specified that the contents of intra- agency materials determine the extent to which they may be available or withheld, for it was held that:

"While the reports in principle may be exempt from disclosure, on this record - which contains only the barest description of them - we cannot determine whether the documents in fact fall wholly within the scope of FOIL's exemption for 'intra-agency materials,' as claimed by respondents. To the extent the reports contain 'statistical or factual tabulations or data' (Public Officers Law section 87[2][g][i], or other material subject to production, they should be redacted and made available to the appellant" (id. at 133).

I hope that I have been of assistance.

Sincerely,

 

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director

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cc: Town Board
David Gilmartin, Jr.