December 10, 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 facts presented in your correspondence.
As you aware, I have received your letter in which you sought my views concerning a request made under the Freedom of Information to the State Department of Health nearly a year and half ago. In a June 23 acknowledgment of the receipt of your request of June 13, 2000, you were informed that it was "estimate[d] that it will take approximately 30-60 days to complete your request or determine the availability of documents responsive to your request" (emphasis added by the Department). You were informed by letter on April 25, 2001 that your request had been "partially completed", and some of the data sought was disclosed; equivalent but more recent data would presumably be made available at some time in the future. Other aspects of the request were denied on the basis of §2803-d of the Public Health Law. More time had passed, and you considered portions of the request to have been denied, and you appealed on that basis on October 25.
The information sought involves portions of a database known as the "Uniform Complaint Tracking System." Based on your discussions concerning the contents of the database with Department staff, it is my understanding that you agreed that various portions could be withheld to protect personal privacy. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, with respect to the delays that you have faced, 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..."
Based on the foregoing, an agency must grant access to records, deny access or acknowledge the receipt of a request within five business days of receipt of a request. When an acknowledgement is given, it must include an approximate date indicating when it can be anticipated that a request will be granted or denied [see DeCorse v. City of Buffalo, 239 AD2d 949, 950 (1997)]. The acknowledgement by the records access officer did not make reference to such a date.
I note that there is no precise time period within which an agency must grant or deny access to records. The time needed to do so may be dependent upon the volume of a request, the possibility that other requests have been made, the necessity to conduct legal research, the search and retrieval techniques used to locate the records and the like. In short, when an agency acknowledges the receipt of a request because more than five business days may be needed to grant or deny a request, so long as it provides an approximate date indicating when the request will be granted or denied, and that date is reasonable in view of the attendant circumstances, I believe that the agency would be acting in compliance with law. Notwithstanding the foregoing, in my view, every law must be implemented in a manner that gives reasonable effect to its intent, and I point out that in its statement of legislative intent, §84 of the Freedom of Information Law states that "it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible." Therefore, if records are clearly available to the public under the Freedom of Information Law, and if they are readily retrievable, there may be no basis for a lengthy delay in disclosure.
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. 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)].
Second, with regard to rights of access, 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.
Pertinent is another statute, §2803-d of the Public Health Law, entitled "Reporting abuses of persons receiving care or services in residential health care facilities." Reports of investigations fall within the first ground for denial of access, §87(2)(a), concerning records that are "specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute." Subdivision (e) of §2803-d serves as an exemption from disclosure, for it states that:
"Except as hereinafter provided, any report, record of the investigation of such report and all other information related to such report shall be confidential and shall be exempt from disclosure under article six of the public officers law."
Most relevant in my view, however, is subdivision (f) of §2803-d, which states in pertinent part that:
"Information relating to a report made pursuant to this section shall be disclosed...pursuant to article six of the public officers law after expungement or amendment, if any, is made in accordance with a hearing conducted pursuant to this section, or at least forty-five days after a written determination is made by the commissioner concerning such report, whichever is later; provided, however, that the identity of the person who made the report, the victim, or any other person named, except a person who the commissioner has determined committed an act of physical abuse, neglect or mistreatment, shall not be disclosed unless such person authorizes such disclosure..."
Based on the foregoing, it appears that the contents of the database are accessible after certain actions are taken, or in some instances, after a prescribed period of time, and following the redaction of any name, except the name of a person found to have committed an act of physical abuse, neglect or mistreatment, or the name of any other person who has authorized disclosure. The information contained in the database following proper redactions would, as I understand its contents, consist of factual information accessible under §87(2)(g)(i) of the Freedom of Information Law. That provision requires the disclosure of "statistical or factual tabulations or data" found within inter- agency or intra-agency materials, unless a separate ground for denial may properly be asserted. In short, I believe that portions of the database must be disclosed.
Lastly, when information is maintained electronically, it has been advised that if the information sought is available under the Freedom of Information Law and may be retrieved by means of existing computer programs, an agency is required to disclose the information. In that kind of situation, the agency would merely be retrieving data that it has the capacity to retrieve. Disclosure may be accomplished either by printing out the data on paper or perhaps by duplicating the data on another storage mechanism, such as a computer tape or disc. On the other hand, if information sought can be generated only through the use of new programs, so doing would in my opinion represent the equivalent of creating a new record.
Questions and issues have arisen in relation to information maintained electronically concerning §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law, which states in part that an agency is not required to create or prepare a record in response to a request. In this regard, often information stored electronically can be extracted by means of keystrokes or queries entered on a keyboard. While some have contended that those kinds of minimal steps involve programming or reprogramming, and, therefore, creating a new record, so narrow a construction would tend to defeat the purposes of the Freedom of Information Law, particularly as information is increasingly being stored electronically. If electronic information can be extracted or generated with reasonable effort, if that effort involves less time and cost to the agency than engaging in manual deletions, it would seem that an agency should follow the more reasonable and less costly and labor intensive course of action.
Illustrative of that principle is a case in which an applicant sought a database in a particular format, and even though the agency had the ability to generate the information in that format, it refused to make the database available in the format requested and offered to make available a printout. Transferring the data from one electronic storage medium to another involved relatively little effort and cost; preparation of a printout, however, involved approximately a million pages and a cost of ten thousand dollars for paper alone. In holding that the agency was required to make the data available in the format requested and upon payment of the actual cost of reproduction, the Court in Brownstone Publishers, Inc. v. New York City Department of Buildings unanimously held that:
"Public Officers Law [section] 87(2) provides that, 'Each agency shall...make available for public inspection and copying all records...' Section 86(4) includes in its definition of 'record', computer tapes or discs. The policy underlying the FOIL is 'to insure maximum public access to government records' (Matter of Scott, Sardano & Pomerantz v. Records Access Officer, 65 N.Y.2d 294, 296-297, 491 N.Y.S.2d 289, 480 N.E.2d 1071). Under the circumstances presented herein, it is clear that both the statute and its underlying policy require that the DOB comply with Brownstone's reasonable request to have the information, presently maintained in computer language, transferred onto computer tapes" [166 Ad 2d, 294, 295 (1990)].
In another decision which cited Brownstone, it was held that: "[a]n agency which maintains in a computer format information sought by a F.O.I.L. request may be compelled to comply with the request to transfer information to computer disks or tape" (Samuel v. Mace, Supreme Court, Monroe County, December 11, 1992).
Perhaps most pertinent and timely is a decision rendered less than four months ago concerning a request for records, data and reports maintained by the New York City Department of Health regarding "childhood blood-level screening levels" (New York Public Interest Research Group v. Cohen and the New York City Department of Health, Supreme Court, New York County, July 16, 2001; hereafter "NYPIRG"). The agency maintained much of the information in its "LeadQuest" database, and I believe that the principles enunciated in that decision would likely be applicable in the context of your request.
In NYPIRG, the Court described the facts, in brief, as follows:
"...the request for information in electronic format was denied on the following grounds:
'[S]uch records cannot be prepared in an electronic format with individual identifying information redacted, without the Department creating a unique computer program, which the Department is not required to prepare pursuant to Public Officer's Law §89(3).'
"Instead, the agency agreed to print out the information at a cost of twenty-five cents per page, and redact the relevant confidential information by hand. Since the records consisted of approximately 50,000 pages, this would result in a charge to petitioner of $12,500."
It was conceded by an agency scientist that:
"...several months would be required to prepare a printed paper record with hand redaction of confidential information, while it would take only a few hours to program the computer to compile the same data. He also confirmed that computer redaction is less prone to error than manual redaction."
In consideration of the facts, the Court wrote that:
"The witnesses at the hearing established that DOH would only be performing queries within LeadQuest, utilizing existing programs and software. It is undisputed that providing the requested information in electronic format would save time, money, labor and other resources - maximizing the potential of the computer age. "It makes little sense to implement computer systems that are faster and have massive capacity for storage, yet limit access to and dissemination of the material by emphasizing the physical format of a record. FOIL declares that the public is entitled to maximum access to public records [Fink v. Lefkowitz, 47 NY2d 567, 571 (1979)]. Denying petitioner's request based on such little inconvenience to the agency would violate this policy."
Based on the foregoing, it was concluded that:
"To sustain respondents' positions would mean that any time the computer is programmed to provide less than all the information stored therein, a new record would have been prepared. Here all that is involved is that DOH is being asked to provide less than all of the available information. I find that in providing such limited information DOH is providing data from records 'possessed or maintained' by it. There is no reason to differentiate between data redacted by a computer and data redacted manually insofar as whether or not the redacted information is a record 'possessed or maintained' by the agency.
"Moreover, rationality is lacking for a policy that denies a FOIL request for data in electronic form when to redact the confidential information would require only a few hours, whereas to perform the redaction manually would take weeks or months (depending on the number of employees engaged), and probably would not be as accurate as computer generated redactions."
Assuming that your request involves similar considerations, in my opinion, a response to the request, based on the precedent offered in NYPIRG, would involve the disclosure of data stored electronically for which there is no basis for a denial of access. I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: John Signor