April 4, 2002
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.
I have received your letter of February 28 and the materials attached to it. Having requested contracts or agreements between the Shoreham-Wading River School District and a particular individual, the District denied access and wrote that the record is subject to the "Personnel Exemption."
You have sought an advisory opinion concerning the propriety of the rejection of your request, and in this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, there is no "personnel exemption" in the Freedom of Information Law, and the term "personnel" appears nowhere in that statute. The nature and content of so-called personnel records may differ from one agency to another, and from one employee to another. In any case, neither the characterization of documents as "personnel records" nor their placement in personnel files would necessarily render those documents "confidential" or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law (see Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980). On the contrary, the contents of those documents serve as the relevant factors in determining the extent to which they are available or deniable under the Freedom of Information Law.
Second, 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.
From my perspective, contracts, bills, vouchers, receipts and similar records reflective of expenses incurred by an agency or payments made to an agency's staff or outside contractors must generally be disclosed, for none of the grounds for denial could appropriately be asserted to withhold those kinds of records. Likewise, in my opinion, a contract between a coach, for example, and a school district or board of education clearly must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Law.
In analyzing the issue, the provision of greatest significance in my opinion is §87(2)(b). That provision permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy".
While the standard concerning privacy is flexible and may be subject to conflicting interpretations, the courts have provided substantial direction regarding the privacy of public officers employees. It is clear that public officers and employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public officers and employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, with regard to records pertaining to public officers and employees, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a their official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Farrell v. Village Board of Trustees, 372 NYS 2d 905 (1975); Gannett Co. v. County of Monroe, 59 AD 2d 309 (1977), aff'd 45 NY 2d 954 (1978); Sinicropi v. County of Nassau, 76 AD 2d 838 (1980); Geneva Printing Co. and Donald C. Hadley v. Village of Lyons, Sup. Ct., Wayne Cty., March 25, 1981; Montes v. State, 406 NYS 2d 664 (Court of Claims, 1978); Powhida v. City of Albany, 147 AD 2d 236 (1989); Scaccia v. NYS Division of State Police, 530 NYS 2d 309, 138 AD 2d 50 (1988); Steinmetz v. Board of Education, East Moriches, Sup. Ct., Suffolk Cty., NYLJ, Oct. 30, 1980); Capital Newspapers v. Burns, 67 NY 2d 562 (1986)]. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy [see e.g., Matter of Wool, Sup. Ct., Nassau Cty., NYLJ, Nov. 22, 1977].
In a discussion of the intent of the Freedom of Information Law by the state's highest court in a case cited earlier, the Court of Appeals in Capital Newspapers, supra, found that the statute:
"affords all citizens the means to obtain information concerning the day-to-day functioning of state and local government thus providing the electorate with sufficient information to 'make intelligent, informed choices with respect to both the direction and scope of governmental activities' and with an effective tool for exposing waste, negligence and abuse on the part of government officers" (67 NY 2d at 566).
In sum, I believe that a contract between a school district and an individual, like a collective bargaining agreement between a public employer and a public employee union, must be disclosed, for it is clearly relevant to the duties, terms and conditions reflective of the responsibilities of the parties.
In an effort to enhance compliance with law, copies of this response will be forwarded to the District.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Board of Education