April 9, 2002
I have received your letter of March 6 and the correspondence attached to it. You have sought an advisory opinion relating to a request for records made to the Dryden Central School District.
According to the materials, on January 30, you sent a request to the District seeking "all vouchers, checks, receipts, cancelled checks, payment records, ledgers and vendors' audits" pertaining to particular named employees of the District for school years beginning in 1996-1997. The Superintendent responded on February 11, stating that she "would like to know for what purpose you need this information and if you have an alternative source for obtaining this information which is stored in our school district vault." You considered her response to be a denial of access and you appealed on February 15. She wrote, however that she did not deny the request and wrote that the she would "evaluate your request" when you provide the information that she requested. I assume that she was referring to an indication of the purpose of your request and whether you may have an "alternative source" for obtaining the information.
From my perspective, the Superintendent's response was inconsistent with law. In this regard, I offer the following comments.
First, as a general matter, when records are accessible under the Freedom of Information Law, it has been held that they should be made equally available to any person, regardless of one's status, interest or the intended use of the records [see Burke v. Yudelson, 368 NYS 2d 779, aff'd 51 AD 2d 673, 378 NYS 2d 165 (1976)]. Moreover, the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, has held that:
"FOIL does not require that the party requesting records make any showing of need, good faith or legitimate purpose; while its purpose may be to shed light on government decision-making, its ambit is not confined to records actually used in the decision-making process. (Matter of Westchester Rockland Newspapers v. Kimball, 50 NY 2d 575, 581.) Full disclosure by public agencies is, under FOIL, a public right and in the public interest, irrespective of the status or need of the person making the request" [Farbman v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, 62 NY 2d 75, 80 (1984)].
Farbman pertained to a situation in which a person involved in litigation against an agency requested records from that agency under the Freedom of Information Law. In brief, it was found that one's status as a litigant had no effect upon that person's right as a member of the public when using the Freedom of Information Law, irrespective of the intended use of the records. Similarly, unless there is a basis for withholding records in accordance with the grounds for denial appearing in §87(2), the use of the records is, in my opinion, irrelevant.
In short, I do not believe that Superintendent may condition responding to your request or determining to grant or deny access upon an indication of your purpose for seeking the records. Further, whether there is an "alternative source" of the information is also irrelevant. Insofar as the District maintains the records of your interest, I believe that it is required to disclose them to the extent required by law.
Second, with respect to rights of access, 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 opinion, only one of the grounds for denial is pertinent to an analysis of rights of access to those kinds of documents. While that provision might permit that certain aspects of the records in question may be withheld, I believe that the remainder must be disclosed.
Specifically, §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law permits an agency to withhold records to the extent that disclosure would constitute "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Although the standard concerning privacy is flexible and subject to a variety of interpretations, the courts have provided direction through their review of challenges to agencies' denials of access. In brief, 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, it has been held 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, supra; 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 the context of the records at issue, I believe that they are clearly relevant to the performance of the official duties District employees. Consequently, with the exception of personal details, they must in my view be disclosed. Examples of the kinds of personal details that could be deleted prior to disclosure of the remainder of the records would be such items as home addresses, social security numbers and personal credit card numbers. It also noted that although the front side of cancelled checks have been found to be public, it has been held that the back of the checks may be withheld on the ground that disclosure would result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. The court found, in essence, that inspection of the back of a check could indicate how an individual chooses to spend his or her money, which is irrelevant to the performance of that person's duties(see Minerva v. Village of Valley Stream, Supreme Court, Nassau County, May 20, 1981).
In conjunction with the preceding remarks concerning access to records, I direct you to a statement concerning the intent and utility of the Freedom of Information Law, the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court, found that:
"The Freedom of Information Law expresses this State's strong commitment to open government and public accountability and imposes a broad standard of disclosure upon the State and its agencies (see, Matter of Farbman & Sons v New York City Health and Hosps. Corp., 62 NY 2d 75, 79). The statute, enacted in furtherance of the public's vested and inherent 'right to know', 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" (Capital Newspapers v. Burns, supra, 565-566).
Based on the foregoing, I believe that the need to enable the public to make informed choices and provide a mechanism for exposing waste or abuse can be balanced against the possible infringement upon the privacy of present or former public officers or employees in a manner consistent with the preceding commentary.
Lastly, an issue of possible significance issue involves the extent to which the request "reasonably describes" the records sought as required by §89(3) of the Freedom of Information Law. I point out that it has been held by the Court of Appeals that to deny a request on the ground that it fails to reasonably describe the records, an agency must establish that "the descriptions were insufficient for purposes of locating and identifying the documents sought" [Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY 2d 245, 249 (1986)].
The Court in Konigsberg found that the agency could not reject the request due to its breadth and also stated that:
"respondents have failed to supply any proof whatsoever as to the nature - or even the existence - of their indexing system: whether the Department's files were indexed in a manner that would enable the identification and location of documents in their possession (cf. National Cable Tel. Assn. v Federal Communications Commn., 479 F2d 183, 192 [Bazelon, J.] [plausible claim of nonidentifiability under Federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 USC section 552 (a) (3), may be presented where agency's indexing system was such that 'the requested documents could not be identified by retracing a path already trodden. It would have required a wholly new enterprise, potentially requiring a search of every file in the possession of the agency'])" (id. at 250).
In my view, whether a request reasonably describes the records sought, as suggested by the Court of Appeals, may be dependent upon the terms of a request, as well as the nature of an agency's filing or record-keeping system. In Konigsberg, it appears that the agency was able to locate the records on the basis of an inmate's name and identification number.
While I am unfamiliar with the recordkeeping systems of the District, to extent that the records sought can be located with reasonable effort, I believe that the request would have met the requirement of reasonably describing the records. On the other hand, if the records are not maintained in a manner that permits their retrieval except by reviewing perhaps hundreds or even thousands of records individually in an effort to locate those falling within the scope of the request, to that extent, the request would not in my opinion meet the standard of reasonably describing the records.
In an effort to enhance compliance with and understanding of the Freedom of Information Law, a copy of this opinion will be sent to the Superintendent.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman
cc: Patricia Archambault